Recycled rubber playground surfaces seem like a win-win situation. When children fall, they're more likely to bounce than break bones. And the springy, low-maintenance ground cover, which is also used in running tracks and synthetic turf, provides an eco-friendly solution to automotive tire waste.
But some parents are having second thoughts about the cushioning surface, now that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it isn't certain that chronic exposure to the chemicals found in tire crumb is safe. Though shredded-tire playground surfaces have been endorsed by the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission for years, there's little data related to the toxicological risks from the surface, according to documents released to the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"I steer my kids away from such playgrounds whenever possible," said Becky Andrews of St. Paul, a mother of two boys, ages 13 and 6, who lives near a playground with recycled tire crumb. "I've wondered what was in all that dust that they were undoubtedly breathing in."
Others have been alarmed when children came home from the playground with fragments of tire crumb rubber on their clothing, according to EPA documents.
But do parents really need to worry?
One of the few studies to assess the health effects of tire crumb found the chemicals could be toxic to aquatic organisms such as fish, though the effects decreased over time. With regard to children, reused tires posed minimal hazard, noted the 2003 study. The National Program for Playground Safety says it will recommend tire crumb until it receives guidance from the EPA. But not everyone wants to wait for the results of the EPA's field-monitoring studies, which have been criticized for being too limited.
Parents can also try the following strategies until more research has been done:
--Seek out alternative surfaces, including wood chips, wood mulch that hasn't been treated with the pesticide chromated copper arsenate (CCA), sand or pea gravel. Children should not play on playgrounds with asphalt, concrete or CCA-treated wood mulch, according to the CPSC's Handbook for Playground Safety.
--After your children have played in shredded tire material, thoroughly clean your kids and their clothes, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which wants the EPA to stop promoting tire crumb playgrounds until research has concluded it's safe.