Washington, DC — A new multi-agency federal study into the human health and eco-impacts of widespread use of shredded tires in playgrounds and sports fields will raise more questions than it answers, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). While researchers begin to grapple with an array of unknowns, children will remain in direct contact with shredded tire pellets containing lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury and a number of dangerous hydrocarbons.
Announced last Friday in response to growing public concerns “about the safety of recycled tire crumb used in playing fields and playgrounds in the United States,” the Obama administration directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to undertake a “coordinated Federal Research Action Plan.” That plan, however, will not produce definitive guidance as it is geared to diagnose the array of “data and knowledge gaps” including what precise mix of chemicals is in “recycled tire crumb” and the potential pathways for human exposure.
It appears that direct White House involvement resulted in the sudden multi-agency research effort which none of the three agencies was previously scheduled or funded to undertake. The extremely quick turnaround for “preliminary findings” by the end of 2016 also suggests personal interest by the short-term President following a recent ESPN profile featuring a growing tally of young soccer goalies contracting cancer after years of playing on crumb rubber surfaces. Notably, the Obamas installed a crumb rubber playground (on recommendation of EPA) for their girls when they first moved into the White House.
The very preliminary nature of this initiative, however, may delay rather than hasten public health safeguards, especially for very young children spending hours a day on turf playgrounds and sports fields:
There will be no moratorium on building new tire crumb fields while the research continues. Nor will parents be given warnings about the potential risks identified;
Even if chemical exposure is identified, there are no longitudinal studies to learn the effects of long-term exposure, especially to children. Instead, toxicity reviews will be confined to “existing databases.” As a result, the key question of what level of childhood exposure should be of concern will be left largely unexamined; and
Rather than using its statutory power to protect children from potentially harmful products, CPSC is tasked with “exploring conducting a survey of parents to get first hand perspectives on potential exposures from playground surface materials.” CPSC has been ducking a decision to classify turf playgrounds as children’s products, a designation that triggers strict lead limits.
“While we are glad that chemical exposure to crumb rubber surfaces is finally drawing national attention, this ‘federal action plan’ does not appear designed to lead to actual action,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization led the drive to induce both EPA and CPSC to withdraw their previous safety endorsements for crumb rubber surfaces. “The Consumer Product Safety Commission does not need a survey to know that children come into intimate contact with playground surfaces – it should instead use its clear existing authority to protect children from harmful chemical exposures.”
Ironically, recycling tires for use as playing surfaces became popular under a program pushed by EPA. Yet, despite concerns raised years prior by its own toxicologists, EPA balked at conducting risk assessments for the same practices it was promoting.
“We are now just beginning the risk assessment EPA should have done more than a decade ago,” added Ruch, noting that the agency encouraged recycling as the means to eliminate mountains of used tires choking domestic landfills. “EPA pursued a solid waste solution containing a public health blind spot.”