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Alachua closes 5 play sites with arsenic

Officials shut down five playgrounds after finding dirt with the toxic substance that leaked from treated lumber.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 27, 2001


Officials shut down five playgrounds after finding dirt with the toxic substance that leaked from treated lumber.

TALLAHASSEE -- Alarmed by arsenic found in playground mulch and dirt, the Alachua County Commission shut down five playgrounds built with posts, boards and borders made of pressure-treated wood.

It is one of the first local governments in Florida to take such broad action in the face of news that pressure-treated lumber leaks arsenic.

"Once the County Commission heard from its own environmental department that we had levels 150 times above standard, we had a big liability problem," said Alachua County Commission Chairman Dave Newport. "Clearly, once we were given the information, we had to ask ourselves: Okay, do we want to continue to let children eat arsenic knowingly? Of course, the answer was no. Being the father of five children, I've seen some kids eat dirt."

County environmental workers sampled the parks around Gainesville this summer. In the county's five wooden playgrounds, the average amount of arsenic turned out to be 61 times higher than the state's pollution cleanup standard for neighborhoods. One playground dirt sample -- near an ordinary wood-post border -- showed about 156 times more arsenic than the state's limit for neighborhood cleanups.

In the Tampa Bay area, several wooden playgrounds closed last spring when tests commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times found arsenic. Only one -- Discovery Playground in Tarpon Springs -- remains closed. Sims Park in New Port Richey reopened, as did Al Lopez Park in Tampa. Creative Playground in Crystal River and Tom Varn Park in Brooksville stayed open.

Like other local governments and school districts, Alachua County has struggled over what to do about arsenic in parks and playgrounds. The commission's vote Tuesday night was unanimous. The playgrounds will close for now, and probably will be replaced in time, county officials said. Two wooden playgrounds in the county -- one at an elementary school and one at the University of Florida's Baby Gator day care center -- have already been torn down.

One of the county's most surprising findings was that rubber mulch -- made up of used tires -- had arsenic in it.

"It turns out it absorbs the arsenic just like the soil does," said Alachua County environmental protection director Chris Bird. "We thought maybe the mulch wouldn't absorb it. It's thick enough that we hoped it would kind of be a barrier to the soil. But the arsenic seems to stick on it like it does the soil."

The key question is how much risk arsenic poses to children. In a three-day meeting in October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will explore the science behind that question. That leaves local officials dangling.

"Most of the (parks directors) I talk to are either doing what Alachua did -- pulling out the wood -- or expediting replacing it," said Eleanor Warmack, who heads the Florida Recreation and Parks Association in Tallahassee. "What we're basically telling people is to have soil tests done, and make a local decision."

Around the Tampa Bay area, parks workers have tried to minimize exposure -- even though it's not clear whether it will work. Arsenic leaks out of pressure-treated wood because the wood is infused under high pressure with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA.

At Al Lopez Park, workers dug out arsenic-laced soil and disposed of it at a hazardous waste landfill, said Tampa parks director Ross Ferlita. They put in new sand and sealed the playscape to keep kids from getting splinters. The city is phasing out wood playgrounds, he said.

Some community playgrounds also posted signs, warning people that the wood contains a pesticide and they should make kids wash their hands after touching it.

In New Port Richey, parks director Rob Consalvo faced another hassle. Workers collected arsenic-laced playground mulch and sent it to the dump. They ordered new wood mulch from a nursery. To be on the safe side, Consalvo had the mulch tested: It had arsenic in it, because it was probably made of old pressure-treated wood that was chopped up. He had to order new mulch, and retest it to make sure it didn't have any arsenic in it before workers spread it on the playground.

Like other parks directors, Consalvo is waiting for some guidance from the state or federal government.

"Some landfills are nervous about accepting (CCA wood)," said Bird, the Alachua environmental official. "Local governments own solid waste facilities, they own and operate playgrounds and parks. Local governments may end up with some liability because of the lack of direction from state and federal agencies.

"Some local governments are trying to take the lead because we don't think we can wait much longer."

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