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Test shows higher arsenic levels

An independent test commissioned by the city reveals levels 17 times higher than the state considers safe.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Mulch at the city's playground contains 17 times the amount of arsenic the state considers safe for neighborhoods, according to independent laboratory tests released Thursday.

The results are considerably higher than a similar sample commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times, which has written extensively about the potential health risks posed by pressure-treated wood.

The latest tests were conducted by Central Testing Laboratory of Leesburg. City officials played down the results, contending there is no established safety threshold for playgrounds, but said some mulch will be removed.

In addition, signs will be posted to draw attention to chromated copper arsenate, a powerful pesticide that contains arsenic, which can cause cancer and health problems.

CCA is injected into lumber to make it resistant to insects and humidity.

"As a precaution, unwrapped food should not be stored in direct contact with this pressure treated wood or on the ground," the signs will say. "Please wash your hands before eating."

Officials have not ruled out the possibility of closing the playground, which was built in 1995 by hundreds of volunteers, but implied Thursday that such action is unlikely.

A determination will not be made until the Department of Health analyzes the results, City Manager David Sallee said.

Joe Sekerke, a health department toxicologist, has not submitted a formal report but in a telephone interview said the figures are no cause for alarm.

"In a play area, we don't believe children will be exposed to arsenic at a high enough level or for a long enough time to result in an increased risk for cancer," Sekerke said.

The special report the Times published last month focused on five playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. A laboratory took soil samples from each, including Creative Community Playground near Crystal River City Hall off U.S. 19.

The tests revealed arsenic in every case, at levels higher than the state allows.

Crystal River, like some of the other communities in the report, subsequently commissioned its own tests. Those soil samples were taken by the Leesburg testing lab in late March.

Two mulch areas were tested for arsenic. One was found to contain 14.3 parts per million; the second contained 2.8.

Soil at Hunter Springs Park contained 7.6 parts per million, 9 1/2 times the amount the state allows when polluters have to clean up neighborhoods. Another sample at the park showed 1.5 parts per million.

The state limit is 0.8 parts per million for neighborhoods and 3.7 parts per million for industrial sites. State officials can't say how much arsenic poses a risk, and various scientific reports offer different conclusions.

"Because there are no set limits for playgrounds, I cannot interpret those results as being acceptable or not," said Patricia Snowden, an environmental specialist for Central Testing Laboratory. "That's why they were forwarded to the Department of Health."

Despite Sekerke's assurances, the debate shows no signs of waning.

"As we look at the data, some of the data suggests there's not a problem, and some of the data suggests there is," University of Florida researcher Steve Roberts told the Times Tuesday. "Until we have a better handle on this, it would make sense to reduce exposure."

- Staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report, which contains information from Times files.

Recent coverage

The poison in your back yard (March 11, 2001)

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