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Arsenic decision is final

After closing and reopening Pasco school playgrounds, officials err on the side of caution and close them for the rest of the school year.

By KENT FISCHER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 24, 2001


Safe. Dangerous. Safe. Dangerous.

After several weeks of fuzzy information and conflicting advice on whether Pasco school playgrounds contain dangerous levels of arsenic, the decision is final: The wooden playgrounds are off limits until the end of the school year.

Just before spring break, school officials roped off playgrounds and picnic tables made with pressure-treated lumber. This came after the Times reported in a front-page article last month that the lumber could be leaching dangerous amounts of arsenic into the soil.

The district then tested for arsenic at four schools. Those results came back a week and a half ago, and they looked pretty good, according to information the district received from the Florida Department of Health. So the district re-opened the playgrounds.

But now the district is getting conflicting information about what level of arsenic is acceptable, prompting Superintendent John Long to close the playgrounds once again.

"We're going to let these government agencies sort it all out before we let kids back in there," Long said. "We got the "all clear' one day, and then a couple of days later (the state) said they might be wrong."

Arsenic is poison and causes cancer. Lumber often is treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a powerful pesticide that helps the wood stand up to bugs and the elements. Over time, the chemical can seep into the ground.

The question for school officials is at what point do the arsenic levels become dangerous to children?

The state Department of Environmental Protection has said that arsenic should not exceed 0.8 parts-per-million in residential neighborhoods. The Florida Department of Health has advised the district that any measure under 10 parts-per-million is safe.

Two of the Pasco schools tested -- Sunray and Woodland elementaries -- came back with readings of 0.5 parts-per-million. That's safe under either of the agencies' recommendations.

Moon Lake Elementary, though, came in at 2 parts-per-million, and Gulfside Elementary at 3.1 parts-per-million. According to the EPA's guidelines, both readings are too high. But a Department of Health memo dated March 16 says those levels are well within the acceptable range.

Who's right? District officials say they don't know and are choosing to err on the side of caution.

"Even though the amount of exposure is minimal, we're having a hard time finding somebody to tell us what's safe," said John Boucher, the district safety official in charge of the arsenic testing.

In the meantime, Long has shut down the playgrounds and picnic areas down.

That hasn't made much of an impact at most schools because much of their playground equipment isn't wood.

Cotee River Elementary has roped off a jungle gym and monkey bars and has removed some picnic tables.

Moon Lake closed an old playground that was used only by pre-kindergarten students.

"At this point, it's not that serious because the newer equipment is mostly plastic and metal," said Linda McCarthy, principal at Hudson Elementary School.

- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241.

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