While the Crystal River playground is closed, the city will replace mulch that contains more arsenic than the state considers safe.
By ALEX LEARY
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001
CRYSTAL RIVER -- The public works department plans to close the city playground for the month of June to perform routine maintenance and address concerns over arsenic leaking from pressure-treated wood.
The city will replace mulch that a study found to contain 17 times the amount of arsenic the state considers safe for neighborhoods and will treat the entire playground with a sealant.
"We're taking corrective measures," said John Lettow, assistant public works director. He added that any rough spots will be sanded out, and some tires will be replaced.
Signs will be posted to draw attention to chromated copper arsenate, a powerful pesticide that makes wood resistant to insects and humidity. CCA contains arsenic, a known carcinogenic, though the exact public risk is unclear.
A special report in the St. Petersburg Times in March sparked a debate about pressure-treated wood. Some health experts say the risks should be taken seriously; others say the issue has been exaggerated.
The Times story, which randomly selected five playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area, revealed arsenic in every case, at levels higher than the state allows. Skeptical Crystal River officials commissioned additional tests and yielded even higher levels.
One mulch sample contained 14.3 parts per million, 17 times the state limit. The state cleanup limit is 0.8 parts per million for neighborhoods and 3.7 parts per million for industrial sites.
Even so, a state toxicologist said the playground was not a huge concern. The official, Joe Sekerke, said a safe level for playgrounds is 10 parts per million.
Sekerke faced criticism, however, because he based that number entirely on arsenic tests the Times commissioned.
"I didn't really intend for it to be the end-all number at all," Sekerke told a Times reporter last month.
In an interview Friday, he defended his original assessment.
"We don't think there will be any increased risk of cancer from 10 parts per million in soil," he said. "It's going to be even less in mulch. Mulch doesn't stick to your hands like dirt does."
A clearer answer may be imminent.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it will expedite efforts to determine whether children face a risk from playing around pressure-treated lumber.
Also this week, the EPA asked the wood industry to voluntarily increase steps to tell consumers that the wood contains a pesticide.
Lettow said that the monthlong closure, the longest in the five-year history of the playground, is mainly driven by routine maintenance issues.
He said the city coats the wood each year with a sealant, but the process may take longer this time because of a lack of volunteers. City staff will be stretched as well because they have several parks to ready for summer.
The sealant, Lettow said, protects the wood from the sun and may reduce the arsenic concern. That point is debatable. A Consumer Product Safety Commission study found that sealants did not keep arsenic from leaching.
Sealants might be a good idea, though, to prevent splinters.