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Minnesota lawmakers eyeing rubber mulch on playgrounds

Rubber mulch is seen on the playgorund at Duluth's Laura MacArthur Elementary School last June. The Duluth School Board voted earlier this year to replace rubber playground mulch with a wood product. (News Tribune file photo)

There's a new drive in the Minnesota Legislature to get answers about what's in the crumb rubber pellets on sports fields and playgrounds and whether they pose any health risks, possibly putting any new facilities on hold until a benchmark study is done.

The topic has been hot in Duluth, where parent advocacy led the Duluth School Board to vote this winter to replace rubber playground mulch with a wood product.

Synthetic fields at sports complexes from the pros to prep sports contain the rubber pellets, which are typically made from recycled tires. The rubber fills in between the green plastic fibers, and the small granules provide the cushion that makes for softer landings and reduces stress on bodies.

But competing research on the health effects has kicked the turf topic up to the Capitol for another look. A couple of years ago, a bill to provide for a Minnesota-based study stalled. This time it could be headed for inclusion in a broader health policy bill after being aired in committee.

"The science is all over the map," said state Rep. Dennis Smith, R-Maple Grove, who's steering the bill to call a timeout on new crumb-rubber fields.

"There are some studies that say this product is unsafe and some studies that say that this product is safe," he said. "When we're talking about the care and welfare of our children, I think we need to make sure we are putting them in contact with a product that is safe."

The state of California and the federal government are well into a study on the synthetic turf. Researchers are examining the chemicals released during different weather conditions and what happens when the pellets rub against exposed skin. It could be a year or two before that study is published.

Smith said health concerns have been on his mind as he's watched his own children play on those fields. But he knows his measure isn't an easy sell. That's especially true about the proposed freeze on installation of athletic fields and playgrounds with the new turf until July 2019. It would apply to locally managed fields.

"I am not a fan of moratoriums, per se, either," Smith said. "But in this case I feel the risks are high enough and the reward is there for us to pursue this to protect our children."

Ward Einess, who represents Liberty Tire Recycling, the largest tire recycler in the country, called the legislation misguided and heavy handed. Liberty has an operation in Savage, Minn., and Minnesota would be the first state with such a moratorium, he noted.

He said the crumb-rubber turf can be cheaper to maintain, use less water and expand athletic opportunities.

"Especially in climates like Minnesota where the seasons are short, the synthetic turf fields can elongate the season," he said. "You can play early spring, late fall."

The Duluth School Board in January voted unanimously to replace rubber playground mulch with wood chips, but put off a decision on the timeline for installation.

The cost is estimated to be $630,000, including removal, excavation and drainage work. Parents are raising money to help cover the cost.

Cory Kirsling is part of the group of Duluth parents who have pushed to replace rubber mulch, and started a fundraising campaign to help make it happen.

Kirsling said his 9-year-old son has told him that on windy days on his school's playground, dust swirls like a black tornado. Kirsling said the rubber has stained the boy's clothes and has to be scrubbed from his skin after playing. The family began avoiding sports programs that didn't play on natural grass.

"I personally have witnessed young children roll in the tire mulch, bury each other in it, stuff it in their clothes, put it in their mouths," Kirsling said. "Their interactions with the materials are intense and repeated day after day."

The News Tribune contributed to this report. Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 100.5 FM or online at MPRNews.org.

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