What Is in Your Playground? Think Again About Plastic Grass

Those old tires that were once under your car may now be underfoot as the newest generation of fake grass spreads like, well, crabgrass. But before you decide the fake grass is always greener for use in child care environments, read this cautionary article.

We’ve been using artificial turf for decades. It takes a variety of forms, including rubberized asphalt, playground surfaces and landscape mulches. The original Astroturf fields are beginning to degrade and release alarming amounts of lead into the environment. These fields are being torn up and replaced with the latest fake grass, partially constituted of old tires. Initially, this was touted as an environmentally responsible way to recycle tires. But now, people are questioning the logic behind taking a material considered too risky to dispose of in landfills and using it for groundcover where our children play.  This so called “green” grass is finding its way into the child care market through various playground distributors. The so-called plastic grass is then  filled with crumbs of recycled rubber which can actually be picked out of the lining of the “grass.”

Scrap tires also can be recycled into solid surfaces, as well as used as loose fill where the rubber is simply shredded and dumped around the base of a play structure. Many states and municipalities are putting a halt to the use of tire turf until more studies are conducted to ensure these surfaces are safe.

There are almost no studies on the potential health impacts (especially long-term) of using tire rubber, but preliminary reports have found definitive evidence of potential risk. The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), in a January 2007 report, Evaluation of Health Effects of Recycled Waste Tires in Playground and Track Products, found 49 chemicals could be released from tire crumbs. Recycled crumb rubber contains a number of chemicals known or suspected to affect health,  including polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Long-term exposure can lead to neurological damage, carcinogenesis and mutagenesis.

While these findings lead one to believe the material is indeed toxic, manufacturers argue  the toxins are locked in because the rubber is “vulcanized.” Some companies claim the material is indestructible and non-biodegradable, completely safe and nontoxic. Yet at the same time, they admit there is an odor at first (generally considered evidence of the presence of toxic chemicals).  They also claim the dyed rubber is inert. But the last time I picked up blue rubber chips in a playground factory, the dye came off on my hands.  Who knows what these dyes are made of?  Although there are relatively few studies on leaching and health impacts when using scrap tires in these various ways, we can examine the evidence already available from other uses and make assumptions about what it means for children.

  • In 1994, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that due to heavy metals and other pollutants in tires, there is a potential risk for the leaching of toxins into the groundwater when tires are placed in wet soils. Admitting the nearly unpredictable nature of tires, this report stated, “Research has shown that very little leaching occurs when shredded tires are used as light fill material, however, limitations have been put on use of this material; each site should be individually assessed, determining if this product is appropriate for given conditions.”
  • A 1998 study from the University of Massachusetts reviewed existing literature in order to assess the safety of using recycled tires as light fill in civil engineering projects. While the authors concluded it appeared safe, they also stated, “It would be prudent to perform field studies on these areas over longer periods of time. It is important to recognize the impact of scrap tires on the environment varies according to the local water and soil conditions, especially pH value.”
  • The 2007 study conducted by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment indicated recycled tires posed minimal risk when used as shredded loose fill. But again, the study reiterated the importance of understanding local climate impacts, because the tires may degrade differently, depending on weather conditions. It concluded that further research is needed on the potential toxicity of crumb rubber.
  • Later in 2007, the Connecticut Department of Analytical Chemistry conducted some of the first experiments on the potential toxicity of crumb rubber. “The laboratory data presented here support the conclusion that under relatively mild conditions of temperature and leaching solvent, components of crumb rubber produced from tires (i) volatilize into the vapor phase and (ii) are leached into water in contact with the crumbs … Based on these data, further studies of crumb rubber produced from tires are warranted under both laboratory, but most especially field conditions.”

None of these studies shows a clean picture of the long-term use of “crumb rubber.”  We don’t know how the various heavy metals and chemicals might interact and impact a child’s developing neurological system. We don’t even know how much or which heavy metals and chemicals might leach in any specific application.

Until we have more sufficient data, it is best to avoid rubber fill products and plastic turf until additional studies can be performed on these materials may affect the health of young children. Opt for the engineered wood fiber for fall surfacing, or try the new Filtrexx Play Systems that utilizes native hardy plants and is approved by ASTM 1292 as a safety surface.  Additional information on this product is at www.filtrexx.com.