May 16, 2016 -- On May 5, for the third straight North Shore Board of Education meeting, several parents, citing potential long term health risks, urged the district to remove the rubber mulch that was installed more than a decade ago at the playgrounds at all three elementary schools.
Sea Cliff resident Nick Virgilio, who first made the case in March for replacing the fill, reiterated his position and expressed concern that the District’s Construction Steering Committee, which prioritizes building projects across the district had not offered a recommendation to do so at its most recent meeting on May 2.
The mulch, also known as rubber crumb, is made from recycled tires and contains many known carcinogens. It often leaves a soot-like residue on the hands, skin, and clothing of the children who play in it.
Last month, Dr. Kenneth Spaeth,the Director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Hofstra University's Northwell School of Medicine, addressed the Board and residents regarding the material, and citing the dearth of solid data, the presence of known carcinogens in the material, the tendency of young children to often exhibit hand to mouth behaviors, and the stage of physical development children are at – especially with regard to the brain and liver, recommended that the mulch be removed and replaced with another material such as hardwood chips.
At the May 5th meeting, Trustee Marianne Russo, who sits on the Construction Steering Committee, responding to Dr. Virgilio’s remarks, asserted that the school board still had to consider more research before making a decision on what to do.
“I’ve been in this district for a long time. This is the third time revisiting the playground issue – which gives me concern,” she said. “This is not my first rodeo here. I don’t want to be reactive. . . I’m here as a fiduciary and I represent the entire community.”
The Trustee continued that she had spoken to an ASTM (American Society for Testing Materials) board member, who “wrote the standard . . . for loose rubber fill,” and that his view of the mulch was different than that presented by Dr. Spaeth. She explained that she would like to review the studies that the ASTM official had just e-mailed to her the previous day.
“We need to get further information on the materials,” she said, and that the district needed to work with a consultant on the issue who could direct her to other studies that have been conducted.
“At the steering committee meeting,” interjected Dr. Virgilio, “you said if you were to start over, you would not use the rubber mulch.”
“The mulch would not be my first choice,” said Trustee Russo “because there are [at this time] concerns in the community and there were articles out there.”
She explained that she understands parents’ concerns about the health and safety of their children and that she and the school board share those concerns, but that the board represents the entire community and therefore needed to do their “due diligence” before coming to a decision on what to do about the rubber mulch.
“This is going to cost the community from $400,000 to $800,000 to remove and replace,” she continued. “That’s a huge expenditure of public funds, and when I authorize that kind of expenditure I want to make sure that we have a complete and accurate record and that we are doing things properly.”
Dr. Virgilio said that it has been the case in the past that harmful products have been on the market for a long period of time, that people suspected were unhealthy, but were only removed or official warnings issued after many people had been injured. “Why wait?” he asked.
“Because we are fiduciaries,” responded Trustee Russo, and that “hundreds of thousands of public dollars,” are at stake.
“We are concerned about the health of your children.” she continued, but repeated that further investigation into the health impact of the mulch was warranted.
“I have to be satisfied before I authorize the expenditure of money that I have looked at this from every angle,” she said.
Elizabeth Yachos, of Old Brookville, then addressed the board. She said she had sent to the school board many articles regarding the health impact of the rubber mulch from objective sources including Yale University and that there was legislation being considered by the Connecticut state legislature to ban the material. She continued that she was disappointed with Trustee Russo’s comments at the May 2nd steering committee meeting.
Ms. Yachos quoted Trustee Russo as having stated at the meeting that she would not support taking out the mulch unless “a consultant is going to tell me to take it out definitely.”
“‘I’m an attorney, we can hire consultants at any time to give us any information we want and any opinion we want,’” said Ms. Yachos quoting Trustee Russo, “‘We are attorneys. That’s what we do.’”
Directing her question to Trustee Russo, she asked, “I want to know what is your agenda? Are you just going to find a consultant to tell you not to take it out?”
Ms. Russo replied that Ms. Yachos was misquoting her and taking her statements out of context.
“What I said,” Trustee Russo continued, “is that I wanted someone who specializes in playgrounds and playground materials to make a recommendation for us. I would love it if someone recommended to take it out. I would like a recommendation as to whether it needs to come out and what it should be replaced with.”
“I have read all the materials you have sent me,” she continued, “but now I have been referred to other materials [by the ASTM board member], which I would like to have the opportunity to read.”
“If the materials turn out problematic, than the dollars don’t matter,” Trustee Russo explained. “We act as a board. We have to do things on a time table. We are taking this seriously.”
Others in the audience then offered their thoughts on the issue.
Glen Head Elementary School student, Bryce Kessler read a list of the reasons why she believed the mulch ought to be removed.
“Have you ever thought of people getting sick from the rubber mulch?” she asked. “It could be toxic; it could cause cancer and sickness; it ruins and stains clothing.”
Glen Head resident Lisa Albanese then got up to the lectern and said that she had been on the Playground Committee that had opted for the rubber mulch in 2002. She explained that the mulch was chosen for the protection it offers against impact injuries, and that at Glen Head School there was an existing bee problem and that the bees seemed to nest in the wood mulch.
Christine Kim of Old Brookville said that parents at Glen Head School were not allowing their children to play on the rubber mulch during recess. “There is plenty of research out there,” she said, that suggests the rubber mulch is potentially harmful. She asked about the timeline for replacing it.
Joseph Misk, of Old Brookville, explained that he believed that the health and safety of children is the first priority of the School District. "We are behind the curve" compared to other districts, he said, and that "nobody could blame anyone for spending the money to remove the mulch."
The 2007 report on the fill, Mr. Misk continued, advised that children should wash their hands after playing in the fill which suggests possible risks. "That one page letter," he said, "should not be neglected.
Two of those who commented, were from outside the comminunity but are experienced in addressing playground and school environmental safety issues and offered their assistance in helping the district come to a decision.
Al Heraghty, an Associate Professor at Suffolk County Community College and a certified Playground safety inspector said that it would be a good idea for the district to speak to the manufacturer of the mulch regarding the life expectancy of the product to see if it is due to be replaced.
As for alternatives, other surfaces such as pea gravel and sand, Mr. Harraty explained, do not provide the protection against impact injuries from higher heights that the rubber mulch does. Wood mulch is a very good option, he continued, but said that it does require some maintenance.
Patty Wood, Executive Director of Grassroots Enironmental Education of Port Washington, said that the mission of her organization was to promote "child-safe schools" and the issues they have been focusing their attention on include wireless radiation, the use of fragrances, and the use of rubber synthetic fill on playgrounds.
She said, like Dr. Spaeth two weeks ealier, that while there are some studies available on artificial turf fields that use a pebblized version of the crumb as an underlay, there is no data for the playground crumb in which children, and in some cases infants who accompany parents to the playground, are rolling around and crawling in it. Children and infants, she said often exhibit hand to mouth behaviors, which should be a concern. In Port Washington, she continued, hard wood chips were being used as a playground protective matting.
Ms. Wood offered her assistance to the district. "We are here as a resouce and we are here to support the conversation," she said.
While no Trustees other than Trustee Russo participated in the conversation, Vice President Toni Labatte, who was presiding over the meeting in Board President Herman Berliner's absence, did say that the board was "finding an expert" and still needed to do its “due diligence” in researching the issue. “We are taking this issue very seriously and moving forward,” she said.
"There is money for health and safety issues," said Schools Superintendent Dr. Ed Melnick. “I guarantee you that the process has not been delayed,”
"But you should not back off,” he added.
Article by Northwordnews
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