Green Corner: How Green is Your Playground?

Vol. 11 No. 5

green feet

Winter weather most likely has your mind preoccupied on snow removal, heat conservation, and winter maintenance. However, if your school is located in the south or west, winter maintenance concerns are minimal, and even for those located in snowier regions, playground updates are always somewhere on your to-do list.

If you’re looking to update your school’s playground facilities this season or next, here are a few tips taken from the article How Green is Your Playground? By Rachel Cemansky on

Greening Playscapes

The problem with wood play structures (especially the ones installed before 2004) is that they are treated with a chemical called chromated copper arsenate, which is a form of arsenic. CCA helps the wood repel water, so your playscape lasts longer. But the CCA leaches out of the wood over time, where children can come into contact with it as they play. Arsenic can be absorbed into the body through the skin. In addition, it is ingested by small children, who are more likely to put their hands in their mouths. CCA is a known carcinogen, causing skin, bladder, and lung cancer in humans. It has also been linked to kidney and liver cancer, as well as immune system suppression and hormonal problems.

Action Steps:

  • Replace the equipment, if possible. If you can't replace the entire playscape, consider swapping out those parts that are most in contact with the kids, such as handrails and ladder rungs. Use untreated lumber or a plastic/wood composite material.
  • Seal the entire playscape every year with a water-based sealant or latex paint. This will keep the CCA trapped in the wood.

The Problem with Play Sand

Sand is awesome for facilitating creative play. But the problem is that many playgrounds don't use natural "sand" at all, but manufactured products made from quartz. These manufactured play sands have been shown to contain silica and, in some cases, tremolite, which is a type of asbestos. As with any type of asbestos, when tremolite is inhaled it can cause respiratory damage and, possibly, lung cancer.

Action Steps:

  • Replace any non-natural play sands with all-natural beach sand, which can be found at many garden centers or by searching for sources online.

Rubber Mats and Pellets

Mats and pellets made from recycled tires have become a popular choice for playgrounds because they cushion kids when they fall, helping to prevent serious injuries. The problem with these products is that over time, as they are exposed to heat and sunlight, they start to give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals. In tests performed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazards, the rubber mulches and mats released 49 different compounds, including:

  • Butylated hydroxyanisole, which is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin
  • N-hexadecane, which is a respiratory irritant
  • 4-(t-octyl) phenol, which is corrosive and destructive to mucous membranes
  • Lead, which has been proven to cause brain damage in small children

Action Steps:

  • Remove these rubber products and replace them with pea gravel or natural wood chips and mulches that haven't been treated with pesticides. A nine-inch deep layer is recommended.

Pesticides and Herbicides

Most playgrounds are treated regularly with pesticides and herbicides to keep grassy areas and plantings looking good. The problem is that chemical pesticides and herbicides have been found to be harmful to children in a variety of ways, from causing respiratory irritation to causing hormonal disruption and even cancer. Most areas are treated with broad spectrum chemicals at regular intervals throughout the warm months, whether they actually need it or not.

Action Steps:

  • Work with your school or city to replace synthetic chemicals with more eco-friendly organic options.
  • Get rid of plants that are frequently bothered by insects and diseases, and plant hardy native plants instead.
  • Consider using corn gluten meal on lawn areas to inhibit germination of crabgrass and dandelions.
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