I recently took my kids and a few of their friends to a playground in a neighboring town. The playground was pristine and appeared to be relatively new, with shiny equipment and immaculate black rubber flooring. There seems to be a growing trend in using black recycled rubber under spaces where young children are playing, including backyard swing sets, preschools and day care centers.
From soccer fields to playgrounds, recycled rubber surfaces are popping up everywhere. Synthetic turf fields have grown to the point where more than “8,000 multi-use synthetic turf sports fields can be found throughout North American schools, colleges, parks and professional sports stadiums”. Recent concerns have been raised showing that the black recycled tire crumbs which make-up a synthetic turf field may be doing more harm than good.
Now recycled rubber mulch, made from the same recycled tires as those synthetic turf fields could be making its way to a playground near you…or maybe it already has!
Rubber mulch at the playground sounds good in theory, but is it really the answer?
What is Rubber Mulch?
Rubber mulch is typically made from ground-up recycled tires. Generally the tires are shred into small pieces and used as soft flooring in spaces where our children play, and many times spend multiple hours each week.
Those same tires which are being shred into playground flooring throughout the country are also classified as “Hazardous Waste” in many states, and in other locations those tires are deemed “Special Waste”.
Problems with Rubber Mulch
It is known that the rubber used to make tires and which is now being shred and spread around on our playground floors is filled with toxic chemicals. Some of the compounds used in tires are known or suspected carcinogens including benzene, butylated hydroxyanisole, and carbon black. Other chemicals that have been found in a sample of ground-up tires include phthalates, latex, zinc, benzothiazole and more.
Playgrounds attract younger children who tend come in close contact with the ground. Their immature immune systems make likely exposure to those toxins dangerous. During play, it’s not uncommon for the pieces of rubber to enter their mouth, eyes and nose.
An additional problem arises during the hot summer months when the rubber mulch can heat up and releases toxic gases (VOCs).
Why is Rubber Mulch Being Used?
I remember when our town was grappling with the decision of what flooring to place on our newly installed outdoor playground. There were big discussions surrounding the initial appeal of rubber mulch. Rubber mulch provides a soft cushion, so many injuries at the playground could be prevented. It fends off weed growth and can last for years. Using rubber mulch also prevents old tires and other rubber products from ending up in a landfill.
The rubber mulch used for playground, and the crumb rubber used for artificial turf fields, both use the same shred or ground-up tires containing the same toxic chemicals, but there’s one big difference: The federal government is actually promoting and encouraging the use of rubber mulch on playgrounds. According to an NBC News report:
The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that more studies of crumb rubber need to be done, and has retracted an earlier assurance that crumb rubber turf is safe. Both the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, however, recommend and promote rubber mulch. The EPA has worked with industry representatives and state officials to increase the use of tire mulch in playgrounds, and the CPSC recommends mulch in the “Bible” it provides to playground planners across the country.
Safer Alternatives to Rubber Mulch at the Playground
Concrete, asphalt, grass, sand, wood chips and pea gravel don’t do the job when it comes to playground safety. Here’s one option that seems to provide a safe and green alternative.
Fibar or Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF)
Engineered wood fiber (EWF) or Fibar is made from 100% virgin wood fiber. It is NOT made of used wood, which may contain things you don’t want in your playground. Fibar is a slip-resistant option, provides a springy cushion for falls and is generally considered a better option than mulch or wood chips. Fibar is an all-natural wood product and not chemically treated in any way. The Fibar surface is also firm and stable enough to allow for wheelchair accessibility.
Natural playgrounds are created by using landscape elements, movement corridors, sun paths, weather patterns, drainage courses, plant groupings, and other site amenities to create a natural play area that looks and feels like it’s been there forever. These natural playgrounds look like miniature natural landscapes, utilizing rocks, hills, grass, trees and logs.
Our current chemical safety law, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, is badly broken. It allows chemicals onto the market without adequate safety testing. It’s time to change that.