The weather is warmer, and children are spending more time playing outside and in parks. Just like many other products designed for children we have discovered, there are potential health hazards on the playground. Play sand contains carcinogenic dust, and wooden play structures made with pressure treated lumber contain arsenic compounds.
Children love to play in the sand, but have you ever bought a bag of play sand? If you live in California, the bag of play sand is labeled with a Proposition 65 warning label telling you that it contains “chemicals known to cause cancer in the state of California.” Play sand contains crystalline silica, which has been identified as a human carcinogen; however, there have been no reported cases of children developing cancer from play sand. In addition, play sand contains traces of the mineral tremolite, a form of the human carcinogen asbestos. Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, as quoted in the Green Guide, states malignant mesothelioma—a lung cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos—is extremely sensitive to limited exposure. “Even very small doses of asbestos exposure,” Landrigan says, “can increase the risk of malignant mesothelioma for four or five or six decades.” As expected, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) fails to see a problem with play sand.
The good news is that a safe sand alternative exists. According to the Safe Sand Company, “Safe Sand is a fine white playsand, but unlike crushed quartz, it is a feldspathic sand. Our finely gradated and clean play sand is ideal for use in children’s sand boxes. Our beautiful white sand is the perfect texture for creating sand castles and sand sculptures.” We filled our sandbox with local sand from the river. Since this natural sand is not manufactured play sand, I assume (perhaps foolishly) that it is safe.
Another risk found in backyard and playgrounds comes from wooden structures built with pressure treated lumber. This lumber often has a greenish tinge to it from the chemicals injected into it to preserve the wood. This wood is treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to prevent rot from insects and microbial agents. This is one area in which the government has acted to protect our children. The EPA has worked with manufacturers since 2003 to eliminate CCA from children’s play structures. Unfortunately, many older playgrounds still exist and the CPSC has refused to ban CCA. Commissioner Mary Sheila Gall said, “EPA’s cancellation of the registration of CCA as a pesticide will have the effect of prospectively banning the use of CCA-treated wood, and most major manufacturers of playground sets have already ceased using CCA-treated wood. I urge the staff to continue its work to identify stains and sealants that will reduce exposure to arsenic from existing CCA wood structures.” The CPSC staff scientists found that some children may face an increased risk of developing lung or bladder cancer over from playground equipment made from CCA pressure-treated wood. Children come in contact with arsenic residue from the hand to the mouth after playing on CCA pressure-treated wood playground equipment. The Environmental Working Group led the way in petitioning the CPSC. Their report titled Poisoned Playgrounds found that, “We know that arsenic in drinking water is dangerous for children, but what we found was that the arsenic in lumber is an even greater risk,” said EWG Analyst Renee Sharp, principal author of the report. “In less than two weeks, an average five-year-old playing on an arsenic-treated playset would exceed the lifetime cancer risk considered acceptable under federal pesticide law.”
EWG makes the following recommendations for protecting children from pressure treated lumber:
*Seal arsenic-treated wood structures every year with polyurethane or other hard lacquer
*Don’t let children eat at arsenic-treated picnic tables, or at least cover the table with a coated tablecloth
*Make sure children wash their hands after playing on arsenic-treated surfaces, particularly before eating.
Remember, pressure treated lumber may exists in many places outside your home. Be cautious around decks, fences, railings, etc. Newer wooden play structures are preserved with “ammoniacal copper quaternary, is considered less toxic to children than arsenic compounds, but its effect on the environment is still unknown. The most responsible choice remains naturally rot-resistant woods like cedar or redwood. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified wood, or choose play sets made from recycled plastics”, as suggested by the Green Guide. My personal opinion is to look for cedar products, as I am concerned with overharvesting in the redwood forests. If you are shopping for a backyard play structure, The Green Guide also offers product comparisons of alternative playground equipment.