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Parents ask Duluth school district to remove 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 on school playgrounds, citing concerns about chemicals and toxins in the rubber. (file photo / News Tribune)

A group of parents is asking the Duluth school district to replace rubber playground mulch before federal agencies studying its effects release their recommendations.

The Duluth School Board held a meeting Tuesday to hear the parents and learn more about the issue from the Minnesota Department of Health and from district employees. Long-term effects of the chemicals found in rubber mulch are unknown, although limited studies have not shown elevated health risks.

“Is it worth keeping this material on playgrounds while we wait for answers on some of these more complex questions?” asked parent Aaron Crowell, part of Duluth Parents for Healthy Playgrounds. “I’m here because I’d rather not wait.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in February they would study whether fields surfaced in artificial turf and playgrounds that use bits of recycled tires are exposing children to dangerous chemicals. Another major study is being done by the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment. A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota Senate that would require signage for fields and playgrounds using crumb rubber and a moratorium on its use in newly constructed playgrounds. It has not been heard in committee.

The Minnesota Department of Health doesn’t feel there is enough information yet to draw conclusions on whether exposure is a health concern, “but we recognize the question is out there,” said Jim Kelly, manager of the environmental surveillance and assessment section for the department.

“Typically we look at things over long exposure periods,” he said, including the intensity of contact. “We look at that over a lifetime; not a short period of exposure.”

Board member Nora Sandstad said concerns come from students putting the rubber mulch in their mouths, burying each other in it and other “extreme uses” — claims corroborated by Lester Park elementary school principal Sue Lehna.

“They chew it like gum. They pile it, bury in it … do more creative play,” Lehna said, despite being told not to.

Kelly said those things increase the likelihood of adverse effects, “but it’s a matter of how much over a certain period of time.”

Kelly said precautions can be taken, such as hand-washing after playing on the material, covering food and beverages consumed near the surface, and shaking out clothes and shoes. Lester Park parent Jamie Parent said kids coming in from the playground to eat lunch rarely wash their hands, noting there is only one nearby soap dispenser for dozens of kids at a time at her child’s school.

All elementary schools except for Congdon Park have shredded rubber on their playgrounds, and the middle schools have it under their swings. Congdon Park doesn’t have it because only a small part of its playground was changed during the long-range facilities plan, and parents asked that its wood mulch be kept.

The district estimates it could cost about $385,000 to remove the shredded rubber from the 10 playgrounds and replace it with an engineered shredded wood surface. Shredded wood needs to be 12 inches deep as opposed to the 6 inches for rubber, and the playgrounds are built for rubber mulch, said Kerry Leider, property and risk manager for the district.

At most sites, that would mean extensive work involving excavation; removal of 6 inches of concrete footing; installation of new fabric and rubber pads; and possible removal and reinstallation of playground equipment to accommodate the work.

Prior to the shredded rubber — used in part to minimize playground injuries — the district used shredded wood for about a decade. That was changed during the long-range facilities plan because of concern over mold and composting, Leider said. Further back in district history, pea gravel, dirt and sand were used, which did little to lessen the chance of head injury during a fall.

The parent group is advocating a task force of community members and district staff to work together to raise money and find creative ways to replace the mulch without putting the entire cost on the district.

“We all know there are financial challenges,” Crowell said. “We would be overjoyed … to work as a group with the district on how we can knock down that cost potentially.”

Parents also detailed other safety concerns, including shallower areas of rubber created from the material being pushed around, and rubber that becomes too hot in the sun.

The Duluth parent group — which presented extensive research — has been working on the issue for several months. Last fall it presented at a community meeting results from a test completed by St. Paul-based Legend Technical Services using a sample of Lester Park school’s rubber mulch. The test found 12 chemicals listed by the Minnesota Department of Health as "chemicals of high concern." A toxicologist at the meeting said the low levels of the chemicals found weren’t concerning, but the effects of long-term exposure to children wasn’t known.

The board Tuesday said it would discuss the issue further, either at a regular meeting or another committee of the whole meeting.

A Minneapolis Star Tribune story on Sunday detailed a debate in Edina, Minn., over changing several grass sports fields to crumb rubber. The newspaper reported Tuesday that four new synthetic turf fields were approved by the district’s School Board. Parents had asked them to hold off until federal agencies released their recommendations on crumb rubber. The agreement with the field vendor allows an out if findings say to not use the material.

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