MPS parents push for removal of tire mulch

Third-grader Lincoln Brown plays on the Lyndale Community School playground, which has tire mulch as a surface covering. Lincoln, 9, said he stays on the school's field because he doesn't like the smell of the tire mulch. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

A group of parents is pushing Minneapolis Public Schools to remove tire mulch from all district playgrounds out of concern for students’ health.

The group, called Play It Safe Minneapolis, would like to see tire mulch replaced with engineered wood fiber, which is a non-chemically treated virgin wood fiber designed for playgrounds.

Play It Safe is pushing for the district to take action this school year. It would ultimately like to see tire mulch and crumb rubber removed from all fields and playgrounds in the city.

Tire rubber is used as infill material on artificial turf fields and as surface covering on playgrounds. It contains a variety of chemicals known to be toxic, but researchers have not determined the extent to which exposure poses an actual health risk, according to a city subcommittee tasked with studying the issue.

Studies done by California and New York have shown that exposure to the chemicals in crumb rubber is likely to be small, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. California and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are currently working on more comprehensive studies that could provide more clarity on the health effects of tire mulch.

When it comes to tire mulch, the state Health Department recommends that parents take usual precautions such as having kids wash their hands before they eat, said Jim Kelly, a manager in the environmental health division. The department doesn’t have any specific recommendations for tire mulch, he said.

“Simply being in proximity to it doesn’t mean that chemicals are getting into someone’s body,” Kelly said.

However, Play It Safe notes that there is uncertainty when it comes to the effects of tire mulch. The group wrote in a November letter to the city that it’s not necessary to wait for scientific certainty to take protective action, adding “definitive science is not and will not be available.”

Group leaders have cited a Yale study that found that about half of the chemicals detected in tire-mulch samples had no toxicity screenings to determine their health effects. They note that kids are more likely to have direct contact with tire that could include putting it in their mouths.

“The idea that we prove this hazardous instead of proving it safe is upside down to me,” said Nancy Brown, a Lyndale Community School parent and Play It Safe leader.

Moratorium on new installations

The Minneapolis subcommittee recommended a moratorium through 2019 on using city money for new fields and playgrounds that use tire mulch. It said that tire mulch used in playgrounds and fields currently in use would need to be maintained to proper safety depth.

It recommended that the moratorium not apply to the 20-year Neighborhood Park Plan, which will provide $11 million annually to Minneapolis parks through 2036.

Minneapolis’ Health, Environment & Community Engagement Committee will hear a presentation on the subcommittee recommendations on Feb. 27.

However, Play It Safe said in its letter that a moratorium should include the projects in the Neighborhood Park Plan. The group wrote that it’s disappointed the recommendations don’t acknowledge the impact of toxins such as waste-tire products on high-density and low-income communities as well as indigenous and immigrant communities and communities of color.

“The playground shouldn’t be one more place they are exposed to toxins,” said Dianna Kennedy, a Play It Safe leader and parent of a Hiawatha Community School kindergartner.

The group also wrote that the recommendations should include ways to address water contamination and heat islands associated with the use of tire mulch.

Synthetic-turf and crumb-rubber trade groups responded to the subcommittee recommendations with a letter that said a moratorium on new synthetic turf field projects would be “unfortunate and misplaced.”

More than 90 technical studies have looked at the effects of rubber infill, and none have found any health concerns, Dan Bond, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, said in an interview. He added that turf fields increase play time, save water and keep tires out of landfills.

“We’re talking about saving water, saving tires from landfills and having a similar amount of chemicals that you find in natural soil,” he said.

Focus on MPS

MPS had budgeted to switch eight playgrounds from wood to tire mulch, but that process is on hold.

The district estimated it would cost more than $1.1 million to convert all 47 rubber mulch play areas to engineered wood fiber. That cost would likely increase, however, because of the need for border changes and improved drainage.

“If we have to go back to wood, it has to be looked at more comprehensively,” Lee Setter, MPS director of environmental health and safety, said at a community forum this month.

The district originally switched from wood to tire mulch because of issues with fungus, mold and freezing as well as difficulty keeping wood mulch at proper thickness, Setter said. The rubber doesn’t degrade or freeze, and it alleviated the district’s main worry at the time, which was adequate fall protection.

Setter said other playground coverings such as pea gravel and sand don’t provide necessary fall protection, whereas tire mulch and engineered wood fiber do.

The district estimates that it costs $35,000 annually to replenish rubber mulch at 66 play areas, based on a need to replenish every five to seven years. That compares to $194,245 to replenish engineered wood mulch or sand at 65 play areas every one to two years.

MPS recently requested bids for 220,000 pounds of rubber playground mulch. The lowest bid was 19 cents per pound, which would total out to cost $41,800.

The district requested bids for 120,000 pounds of rubber playground mulch last year. The lowest bid was about 18 cents per pound, which would total out to $21,804.

School Board member Nelson Inz said he would like to see the district get rid of crumb rubber but noted that the district has limited resources.

“Hopefully we can come up with a solution soon,” he said.

Board chair Rebecca Gagnon said she’s talked with Supt. Ed Graff about the issue. She said she fully supports replacing the tire mulch but noted that she expects the budget to be tight this year.

“We’re really going to have to be careful about commitments right now,” she said.

A district spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement, attributed to Chief Operations Officer Karen DeVet, that MPS relies on a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission handbook to guide decision-making on playground cover. The statement said MPS has two available playground-cover options, wood and rubber mulch, because its playground equipment is over four feet high.

The School Board will consider replacing rubber tire mulch as the district develops its fiscal year 2018 capital plan, the statement said.

Meanwhile, some parents are taking extra precaution and having their kids wash their hands after recess instead of using hand sanitizer, which Brown, the Lyndale parent, said can spread the toxins around kids’ hands. Play It Safe is encouraging parents to contact their School Board representative to share their stories about tire mulch.

“There’s enough studies on this that should give people pause,” said Kennedy, the Hiawatha parent. “That seems needless when we don’t have to have it like that.”