EXPERT ADVISES REMOVING RUBBER MULCH FROM PLAYGROUNDS
April 17, 2016 -- At a meeting of the North Shore Board of Education this past Thursday night, an expert in the field of environmental medicine recommended that rubber mulch not be used in playgrounds due to the scarcity of studies available on the subject and the potential health risk posed to children.
Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, the Director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Hofstra University's Northwell School of Medicine had been invited by Board President Dr. Herman Berliner to present his views on the issue after parents at the previous School Board meeting urged the board to replace the material used at the district's three elementary school playgrounds with a safer alternative that would also offer protection against body to ground impact injuries. The rubber mulch, also known as "crumb," is derived from recycled tires and contains known carcinogens. Nearly 500 people have signed on to a petition backing the parents' position.
Although "there are gaps in the studies" regarding the rubber crumb's impact on humans, toxic chemicals are present in the material including "heavy metals, endocrine disrupting chemicals, and cancer causing chemicals," Dr. Spaeth said. Most studies, he continued, show that the chemicals do not exceed the established safety thresholds, but questioned whether those thresholds are outdated, and said that "politics" can play a part in how those government safety standards are established.
However, "the fact that they are there, does not mean that they pose a risk," he explained. What really matters, is to what extent are they being absorbed into the body.
The limited research out there, Dr. Spaeth said, suggests that small levels of the chemicals do get into the body. However, he repeatedly emphasized that "there is a dearth of good comprehensive data out there." He added that there are anecdotal claims of a connection between the rubber crumb and a lymphoma cluster among soccer players in Washington State who frequently played on a field for which the material serves as an underlay.
None of the studies, Dr. Spaeth explained, were done on children, but rather on adults in an occupational setting or on teenagers playing on fields in which the rubber crumb is used as a foundation for artificial turf.
He cited one study on athletes who had played on fields with the rubber crumb that indicated no real difference between the levels of the carcinogens in their urine compared to non-athletes who had not played on the fields regularly. He pointed out, however that the behavior of young children is significantly different than high school athletes. Children are much more apt to exhibit hand to mouth behaviors and to roll around in the material where it can get into eyes and noses.
A parent asked if children would also be more at risk because they were not fully developed.
"Children are more susceptible," Dr. Spaeth replied, saying that the liver and protective layers of the brain that keep out toxins are not fully developed. Additionally, he explained, because children are smaller than those on whom the material has been studied, "pound for pound the exposure is going to be more toxic."
"Kids and adults are not equal," he said.
Dr. Spaeth told of how his community had once debated whether to use the rubber crumb and that he, both as a parent and a doctor, advised against it. Ultimately, the community went with untreated wood mulch.
While saying that there are better and safer alternatives to the rubber crumb, Dr. Spaeth advised against getting "too anxious" about the presence of the rubber crumb. "If there are risks associated, they are really long term risks," he said. "We're talking about significant time, potentially decades of exposure - regular exposure."
Dr. Berliner asked what alternative he would recommend.
Dr. Spaeth replied his expertise is not in what materials would help protect against broken bones but that there are a wide variety of organic options such as untreated wood mulch and even walnut or coconut shells. Sand is a good option, he explained, so long as it does not contain silica, which can cause a variety of lung diseases. As for rubber matting, he said that the same chemicals would be present there as in the crumb and the risk it poses to health depends on the extent to which the chemicals leach out from the surface. In deciding on an organic product such as wood mulch it would be important to carefully vet the supplier and the source of the material, he said.
Glenwood Landing resident David Ludmar asked Dr. Spaeth to comment on whether organic toxins such as molds and bacteria could pose a problem with wood chips. Dr. Spaeth replied that molds could grow on rubber as well, and that the issue would be allergies not long term health risks. The molds and bacteria one would find in mulch, he said, would be no different than what one would find in a grass field or in the woods.
Glen Head resident Robert Mazzella said that certain mulches can contain peanut shells that could cause a reaction among those who are allergic and that it was important to make sure that whatever alternative is used that that issue be taken into consideration.
Later, during public comment, Sea Cliff resident Nick Virgilio, who is a Chiropractic Functional Neurologist, and who had first raised the rubber mulch issue in a letter to the board last month and who spoke at the March 31 meeting, reiterated some of Dr. Spaeth's points regarding the potential impact of the chemicals on a young child. "The chemicals," he said with regard to their impact on a child's brain, "can affect how they learn, focus - how they interact with family and friends." He also said he had spoken to a state certified playground inspector who said this district is only one of a few that uses the material.
Dr. Virgilio then read a letter to the School Board jointly signed by Mayor Bruce Kennedy of Sea Cliff and Mayor Bernie Ryba of Old Brookville urging the District to replace the mulch with with another material.
The Board will make a decision regarding the rubber mulch after the issue has been discussed and a recommendation is made by the district's Construction Steering Committee. That group will have its next meeting on May 2.
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PARENTS PRESS DISTRICT TO REMOVE RUBBER MULCH FROM PLAYGROUNDS
April 7, 2016 -- At the March 31 North Shore Board of Education meeting, two parents, citing possible health risks to children, urged the district to remove the rubber mulch installed on the playgrounds at all three elementary schools that is used to soften the impact for falling children.
The material, obtained from recycled tires, said Sea Cliff resident Nick Virgilio, is toxic, and while perhaps softening the blow of a hard fall, can potentially cause long term health problems.
The District had studied the issue in 2007 and released a report that indicated the material was safe.
Mr. Virgilio stated that his research had uncovered many studies done since 2007. One 2015 report, he explained, indicated that the rubber mulch contains 96 chemicals, half of which have been studied for their impact on humans, and of those, 27 are known carcinogens, causing either respiratory, skin, or eye irritation. He continued that studies have shown that the chemicals can increase the risk of cancer and of birth defects. "Our children are there every day," he said. "It's the everyday effect, it's the cumulative effect on their bodies. . . . The cumulative exposure develops a build up in the body of toxic chemicals that can result in disease years or decades later."
There are "viable healthy alternatives to the toxic soup children are rolling in," Mr. Virgilio said, including poured formed rubber and "virgin, untreated wood chips," which are used in other school districts. He said that he had called one district using the chips, and that the nurse there had reported no playground body to ground impact injuries.
Mr. Virgilio has started an online petition that has garnered more than 400 signatures urging the district to remove the synthetic mulch.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Edward Melnick asked Mr. Virgilio to submit his research to the district, and that he and the board would "certainly take a look at it and consider it."
"We're all concerned about the safety of our children," he added.
Trustee Marianne Russo said that the issue would have to go through the Construction Steering Committee, on which she serves as a representative of the School Board, and which prioritizes building projects throughout the district. "There we can distill the information," she explained. "I would like the input of our professionals who on our staff."
"If there's going to be a change, it's going to be an expensive change," said Dr. Melnick. "We would want the community's support in that."
Elizabeth Yakos, a Glen Head resident with three children attending Glen Head School, said that like Mr. Virgilio, she was very concerned about the mulch and the possible health risks to children and urged the board to move on the issue quickly.
"Is this something that can be in this budget?" she asked. "This is something we'd like to see done this summer."
Trustee Russo replied that there are other projects that are being done this summer, and that there is a "process by which we do things."
Ms. Yakos asked if there was "the potential for having this done this summer."
Trustee Russo replied that "it has to go through the process and we can't promise you that it's going to be done this summer or that it's going to be done. We have to look at all the factors first."
"We are not stonewalling," said Dr. Melnick. He explained that school districts are highly regulated by the state, and that approval for changing the surface has to go through the state. "The health and safety of our children is paramount concern for all of us."
"We can promise you it is going to be taken seriously," added Board President Dr. Herman Berliner. "We will act on this as expeditiously as possible."
Later, parent Christina Kim of Old Brookville, showed pictures of workers installing the material with face masks. "They have rights under the law to be protected," she said. "Children don't have those rights." She asked if parents could opt their children out of recess on the playground so as to avoid being exposed to the material.
Dr. Melnick replied that he would speak to the elementary school principals to see if that would be possible.
The issue will be on the agenda for the April 14 meeting.
Click here for online petition
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