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Duluth parents raise concerns about rubber playground mulch

Rubber mulch made from recycled tires covers the playground at Duluth’s Lester Park Elementary School. A group of parents wants the school district to replace the mulch, citing concerns about chemicals and toxins in the rubber. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
A parents group wants the Duluth school district to replace the rubber mulch on playgrounds. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Children play on the Lester Park Elementary School playground on Wednesday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

A group of Duluth parents made their case for replacing the rubber mulch at the Duluth school district's playgrounds with wood fiber after they became concerned about chemicals in the rubber.

Duluth Parents for Healthy Playgrounds presented its findings to about 50 people at a community meeting Wednesday, based on a test completed by St. Paul-based Legend Technical Services using a sample of Lester Park Elementary School's rubber mulch. The test found 12 chemicals listed by the Minnesota Department of Health as "chemicals of high concern."

The low levels of the chemicals found in the mulch isn't concerning, but effects of the long-term exposure children have to the chemicals during their tenure at the school is not known, explained Kellie Fay, a Duluth toxicologist and research associate with the Environmental Protection Agency. She said she was surprised by the results, but was concerned about the small sample size and that not all chemicals were tested. Most studies of rubber mulch have found it to be relatively safe, but also acknowledge limitations in the study, she said.

"We don't really have the data right now. There's no smoking gun exactly, but I think there are enough legitimate concerns out there," she said.

The group formed when parents became concerned about the black dust left on their children after playing in the rubber mulch and began researching it. The problem is that there are unknown factors in using rubber mulch, said Cory Kirsling, a member of Duluth Parents for Healthy Playgrounds.

"Our kids are not an experiment. Children are unique in the way that they absorb their environment," Kirsling said.

Kerry Leider, the school district's property and risk manager, said during the meeting that it's the beginning of the conversation on the rubber mulch. Duluth School Board members were in attendance at the meeting and board member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp explained that the board is open to hearing residents' concerns about the rubber mulch.

The district has previously tried pea gravel and wood fiber at its playgrounds. The pea gravel made its way into the schools when students would come inside and created problems in the schools, including slippery floor conditions, Leider said.

The district tried wood fiber, but the noticed that it would break down and begin composting. After using wood fiber for a decade, the district switched to rubber mulch — which had become more available on the market — because it didn't break down and compost, he said.

No discussions took place about rubber mulch's potential health concerns when the district switched and Leider said he relies on regulating agencies' determination that it's safe.

"Rubber is more common than it was eight or 10 years ago on playgrounds, but it's been around for a long time. We probably all drove a car here today. We all probably walk around on the sidewalks and we've had to replace the tires on our cars," he said. "It's out there on every street that we're breathing in and kids are playing and riding their bikes."

He added that his primary concern is with injuries on the playground, and reducing the severity of those injuries. Wood fiber can be as effective as rubber mulch in preventing serious injuries from falling, he said. Although he didn't have a specific comparison of numbers of serious injuries with wood fiber and rubber mulch, he explained that the rubber mulch has eliminated the possibility of "real serious slivers" as well as wood fiber getting in students' eyes.

Kirsling explained that wood fiber is approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. However, several more inches of it would be needed, compared to the 6 inches of rubber mulch now in use at the district's playgrounds. The wood fiber will need more maintenance than rubber mulch — it would compost, need to be "fluffed" and changed out, he said.

"But we're eliminating any kind of chemical exposure for our kids," he said.

The playgrounds at Duluth's schools are constructed to accommodate 6-inch-deep rubber mulch, but wood fiber would need to be 12 inches deep to meet standards, Leider said.

"It's not just the cost of the wood fiber," he said.

In addition to the cost of $110,000 of purchasing wood fiber, the district would have the added cost of reconstructing the playgrounds. The district would need to lower the drainage system under each playground and lower the cement footings holding the playground equipment posts in place.

If the district were to only replace the rubber mulch with the wood fiber without lowering the playground itself, the playground equipment such as swings and slides would be too close to the ground to meet standards. The district follows the manufacturers' recommendations because not doing so could cause liabilities for the district if a student were to be injured on the playground, he said.

Read the report

Scrap Tire Mulch on Duluth Public Schools' Playgrounds — prepared by Duluth Parents for Healthy Playgrounds

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