LYNDALE — Nancy Brown was at Lyndale Community School in May to register the youngest of her three sons for the school’s High-Five preschool program, and afterwards the two joined other families out on the playground.
It was hot, and the sun beat down as children crawled over the equipment, a collection of ladders, slides and climbing bars surrounded by what looks like black mulch. Like most school playgrounds in Minneapolis, Lyndale’s uses a material made from shredded car and truck tires to protect children from falls.
“And I just noticed I kept taking steps back from the playground,” Brown said, recalling an “overpowering” odor. “It smelled like tires, just a strong chemical smell.”
Four months later, Brown is leading a campaign to have shredded tires removed from district playgrounds over concerns that toxic chemicals in the tires may pose a risk to both children’s health and the environment.
A change.org petition she started in late August had 1,360 signatures within two weeks. She contacted Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL–62), whose aide confirmed he plans to act next legislative session on what has become a perennial topic at the state capitol.
School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon said she’d consider proposing a moratorium on the district’s use of the material until more is known about its health effects. If the recycled rubber is releasing toxins “then we shouldn’t have it on the playgrounds, period,” Gagnon said.
It isn’t just happening here. Parents and concerned citizens across the country have questioned the use of recycled tires on playgrounds and sports fields for at least several years. At the same time Brown launched her campaign here, another was getting underway in Duluth.
School districts and parks departments face a conundrum: a material they adopted to improve safety now is viewed by some as a threat.
That the recycled tires may contain lead, benzene, cadmium, mercury and other toxins isn’t in question. What’s not clear is whether exposure to recycled car and truck tires — in different forms commonly referred to as crumb rubber or rubber mulch — is dangerous.
In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency released the results of a study that detected the presence of lead and other toxic substances in synthetic turf fields and playgrounds with crumb rubber infill, but they were found in concentrations “below levels of concern.” The study involved just a handful of recreation areas, and the agency later acknowledged it was so limited it couldn’t be the basis for broad conclusions about the health and environmental impacts of the recycled tire products.
That same year, both the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and the Los Angeles Unified School District stopped building new artificial turf fields that use recycled automotive rubber. In addition to concerns about toxins, they were reacting to complaints that the artificial turf got much hotter than natural grass in direct sunlight, causing burns and contributing to heat exhaustion.
By that time, L.A. schools had already removed the fields from early education centers “in an abundance of caution,” according to a 2014 report by the district. The New York City parks department released the results of testing at 113 athletic fields and play areas; at just one field did they find lead levels above the EPA’s standard for bare soil in children’s play areas.
Mark Bollinger, Minneapolis Public Schools’ executive director of facilities management and capital construction, said the district relies on widely accepted playground design guidelines, including those found in the “Public Playground Safety Handbook” published by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The district’s aim is to cushion falls of up to 10 feet, which Bollinger said leaves them just two options for ground cover: rubber or wood.
Bollinger said a deep layer of wood infill was common on district playgrounds up until eight or nine years ago. That also generated complaints from parents because a 9-inch layer of wood chips would retain moisture even on hot days.
“That moisture then would turn into mold, and children were getting sick and (having) allergic reactions and things like that because of the mold,” Bollinger said. “So, we had a definite, defined problem there.”
Materials like sand and pea rock, once common in play areas, aren’t rated for 10-foot falls, he added.
Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board spokesperson Robin Smothers said they rely on the same playground safety standards as the district but use Fibar, an engineered wood product, on many of their 112 playgrounds. Park Board playgrounds don’t have any platforms with a 10-foot fall height, Smothers added.
Bollinger said he’s not out to argue with parents, but the district had to make the best choice for students and settled on rubber. He estimated it would cost the district $2.5 million to convert playgrounds back to woodchips.
“Although we are aware that the rubber may be made of different substances that are considered hazardous, they are only considered hazardous when released,” he said, adding that his understanding was a release would require oven-like temperatures — close to 250 degrees Fahrenheit — or a chemical reaction.
“We have on occasion gone out with air tests — because the rubber will smell, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “Some people confuse that smell with being a hazardous release, and it isn’t.”
Brown said she believes the district was trying to do the right thing by switching to shredded-rubber playground infill, but the argument that any exposure to toxins is within allowable limits “doesn’t really make me feel that good,” she added.
Before launching her campaign, she considered taking her case to the Lyndale Community School Foundation and asking parents to raise the money for a new, nontoxic type of playground infill. But she wants the shredded tires removed from all district playgrounds, not just those at schools that can afford it.
“I would be happy with any material that is nontoxic,” she said. “That’s my basic expectation when I send my kids to school.”
In the meantime, Brown has asked her sons to avoid playing in the rubber. They’ve told her it isn’t easy.
Nancy Brown is leading the campaign to remove shredded tires from playgrounds. Photo by Dylan Thomas