For years, city officials have assured San Francisco that it’s safe for kids to play on ground-up, used tires. But a cancer cluster linked to tire fields in Washington and a lack of comprehensive studies has federal and state agencies concerned. Although these agencies have commissioned more studies, our local government keeps touting the health benefits of playing on tires.
Shouldn’t The City, at least, let us know where it put the potentially carcinogenic material?
In some parks, like South Sunset and Silver Terrace, the ubiquitous black pellets are obvious. But sometimes it’s not. Concerned parents around The City have asked me if the rubber padding in their kid’s football field or the playground where their toddler plays is made from ground-up tires, also known as crumb rubber.
I want to answer them, so, in February, I submitted a Sunshine Request to the Recreation and Park Department for a list of parks with synthetic turf made from tires.
Over a month later, Elton Pon, the department’s spokesman, emailed me a list. In his email, Pon emphasized, “No playgrounds, i.e. children’s play areas, utilize SBR crumb rubber infill.” He added, “Many of our existing playgrounds utilize poured-in-place recycled rubber as a cushion layer underneath the play surface that is made of EDPM virgin recycled rubber.”
I interpreted this to mean “recycled rubber” in playgrounds wasn’t made of tires. But I was wrong. At least one playground in San Francisco — not on Rec and Park’s list — does expose kids, toddlers and infants to potentially dangerous chemicals from used tires.
I sent the information I received from Rec and Park to parents who are concerned about tire turf. They said it was inaccurate. According to these parents, many playgrounds do have crumb rubber and children are exposed through holes in playgrounds’ mats.
I was confused. Are The City’s playgrounds made from used tires or not?
I gathered some black rubber from a hole in West Sunset Playground’s mat and brought it to Curtis and Tompkins laboratory in Berkeley. The laboratory has tested crumb rubber for The City in the past, so its technicians are familiar with the makeup of tire turf. According to their report, the West Sunset Playground does have the dangerous material.
“Based on the VOCs [volatile organic compounds] and the zinc it appears to be crumb rubber,” Dr. David Brown, a toxicologist, confirmed when I sent him the lab report. “High levels of zinc are involved in the manufacture of tires.”
Why did The City tell me no playgrounds utilize crumb rubber infill when they do? Why was West Sunset Playground not on the list I received in response to my Sunshine Request? How many other playgrounds are padded with used tires? How many kids are exposed to this potential carcinogen?
“When a hole is identified in a playground’s play surface, our maintenance crews respond by patching the surface and keeping it safe and playable, as we do with all of our playground equipment,” Pon said when I told him about the lab results and asked for a response.
While I appreciate that Rec and Park may patch up West Sunset Playground, their response dismisses the larger concern: Parents need to be aware of the danger. Why else would they rush to report holes? San Franciscans have a right to know if they are being exposed to a potential carcinogen.
When city officials spray pesticides and herbicides in our parks, they put up signs to warn San Franciscans. In light of the cancer cluster and federal and state investigations, why can’t they do the same for tire turf?
City officials aren’t only failing to warn us, they are also providing incomplete and misleading information. They are placing the burden on concerned parents to guard public health.
How can we trust playing on tires is safe when we can’t trust The City to tell us where the crumb rubber is?
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.