Is There Toxic Lead in Your Child’s Playground Mulch?

How DC Playgrounds Underscore A Nationwide Concern

When we think about lead these days, most of us think about the tainted water supply of Flint, Michigan. Unfortunately, there are also other ways children are exposed to unsafe levels of lead. Recently, parents around Washington, DC learned toxic levels of lead had been found in the rubber mulch at their children’s playground.

What Happened on Washington, DC Playgrounds?

A local news team at ABC7 was the first to uncover the contaminants in an investigation about poison playgrounds. The 7 On Your Side Investigative Team gathered samples to send off for testing, and the collection process was observed and certified by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. This ensured the integrity of the rubber materials collected.

The samples of rubber mulch from area schools were sent to Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Ecology Center, and what they found raised the alarm to red alert. There were two school playgrounds that had disturbingly high levels of lead.

At one elementary school playground, almost 30% of the tire-derived rubber mulch had levels of lead greater than 400 parts per million. The other had 7,000 parts per million. Both are unsafe, but one is far larger than what the Environmental Protection Agency deems safe – 300 parts per million.

The Ecology Center then reported the shocking findings to DC’s Department of General Services, and ABC7 broke the news to their viewers. As a result of the fear and backlash, the DC Department of General Services promises to test every playground under their jurisdiction by the end of January 2020. They did just that, and as of March 2021 you can read the full Department of General Services PIP test results report for more info.

A good summary of the lead found in DC school playground surfacing can be found here.

Currently, there are 139 playgrounds surfaced with crumb rubber.

National Implications of Toxic Lead Findings

The DC story is hardly the first time harmful levels of toxins were found in what’s supposed to be protective equipment. Just earlier this year, the city of Boston found out their kids were being exposed to toxic levels of lead in tire-derived mulch.

Twenty-eight different playgrounds with sand, wooden mulch, soil, or rubber were tested. The findings showed 2 to 3 times the amount of lead in the rubber than any of the other surfaces.

The fact is that no amount of lead in a child’s bloodstream is safe, and this is frequently stated by those in medical circles as well as the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor (where the DC rubber mulch was tested). The CDC agrees, and warns even low levels of lead impact educational success, ability to concentrate, and IQ.

Starting in 2016, this long-time fear of parents began to trickle up to the EPA. They gave the job of figuring out the safety of tire-derived rubber mulch to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the CPSC has been running focus groups as a part of a larger study on the safety of tire-derived rubber. Hopefully, the result will be more regulations for the safety of our children.

Unfortunately, the business of getting rid of unwanted tires is a large industry. According to the EPA, the United States creates 290 million pieces of unwanted tires every year. As of now, 22% of crumb rubber (recycled tires) is used in playgrounds. That’s the second-highest use of tires behind sports fields, also frequented by youth.

Additional Toxicity Issues with Recycled Tire Playground Mulch

Lead is not the only issue with recycled tire mulch on playgrounds. There are other harmful effects of exposing children to shredded old tires. Did you know we in the United States aren’t supposed to throw our old tires in landfills due to the chemicals, yet our children are exposed to them at least 5 days a week for the majority of the year?

Lead is not the only contaminant found in playgrounds. Studies have shown the rubber in tire mulch is broken down over time into our soil and water supply by brown and white rot. This is despite being touted as permanent.

Here is a short list of a few more toxins in tire waste:

Latex – An increased number of children and adults experience latex allergies that range
from mild irritation to death.

Phthalates – These are chemicals used to soften plastics. They
interact with human hormones and can have negative effects on the lungs, kidneys, liver, and reproductive system, especially in males.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH’s) – Breathing in PAH’s are suspected by the EPA to cause cancer and birth defects. This happens when the temperature rises and the chemicals are released.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) – VOC’s are key components of ozone and smog. 

Children experience exposure to these compounds with respiratory issues, allergies, and immune problems. There can also be headaches, nausea, and liver and kidney damage. VOC’s can also affect the central nervous system.

2-Mercaptobenzothiazole (MBT) – This chemical is used to soften the rubber of tires into a malleable material. 2-MBT has been ruled as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization, as well as a skin irritant that causes contact dermatitis.

You Can 100% Know What is in Your Child’s Playground Mulch

Many companies that produce mulch for playgrounds use recycled rubber tires. Unfortunately, some companies do not question their supply chain or test their resulting mulch for toxicity. There could be a tire from the U.S. mixed in with a tire from another country, and one could be non-toxic and the other could have high levels of lead and other contaminants.

Then, when all the tires are chopped up together, there is no guarantee each resulting playground surface will be safe and non-toxic. Some might have high levels, others less so. That’s why even just a few foreign tires in the mix can lead to a level of lead high enough to cause health issues.

Jelly Bean Rubber Mulch avoids the problem of variable toxicity by taking the necessary steps to ensure quality control and safety. This brand of protective rubber mulch is not even made of tires. It comes from shredded pieces of 100% non-tire, wire-free, lead-free, non-toxic playground safety tiles.

Part of what ensures Jelly Bean Mulch meets all federal and state safety requirements is their practice of testing all the supply flow before it ever reaches a rubber chopper. This ensures every piece of rubber used in the final product is non-toxic resulting in a safe surface for your children and peace of mind for you.