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Our View: Take step back on rubber mulch

Now that estimates have come back at more than triple the originally talked-about cost, can the Duluth School Board please do right by taxpayers and take a step back on replacing rubber mulch on school playgrounds — at least until the science is there to tell us if the stuff is even a problem?

Concerns about the soft play surface material started brewing around 2008. A number of studies quieted the controversy but never quite quelled it. That's because while chemicals, some even toxic, were found in some rubber mulch, the same chemicals are found in most everyday items, including the plastic travel mug we take our coffee to work in every morning or the gloves we wear in winter or even the wood chips that could replace the rubber mulch should it be removed. The studies have fallen short of finding chemicals in rubber mulch at levels high enough to elicit alarm or constitute a health threat.

Nonetheless, concerned parents convinced School Board members earlier this year to replace the rubber mulch in Duluth with wood chips. The cost in 2008 was estimated at $385,000. That rose to $630,000 when School Board members took their vote and the district then sought bids. This week, the lowest bid to replace the rubber chips on 10 school playgrounds came back at an eye-popping $1.2 million.

The board is expected to vote on the bid next week.

But it can hold off. The science is still on its way. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all said in the past year or so that they were studying the dangers — or lack thereof — of fields surfaced in artificial turf and playgrounds floored with bits of recycled tires. In addition, a major study is being done right now by the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment.

Until results are in, spending $1.2 million — or even $385,000 — to remove and replace a material that may or may not need to be removed is difficult to justify. Especially with the Duluth district remedying a $2.3 million budget shortfall just three and a half weeks ago by voting to cut programs, lay off workers, and reduce other employees' hours.

That doesn't mean the district should do nothing. Until test results are known, school officials can make sure students are washing their hands after spending time on the playgrounds. More hand sanitizer can be provided to schools either by the district or via donations from concerned parents — or both. For health reasons, children should be taught to wash their hands regularly anyway, especially before eating.

Also, as obvious as it may sound, schools and their playground monitors can stress to children not to chew on the rubber pieces they find beneath their feet. Some children are treating the rubber mulch like bubblegum, the principal at Lester Park Elementary School said last year. Discouraging children from putting things in their mouth that they find on the ground seems a sound lesson anyway, no matter what may or may not be in rubber mulch.

If definitive testing being done now finds a hazardous situation or a health threat, the district can be ready with shovels and trash bags. But until then, for taxpayers' sake, the district and School Board can take a step back.