Supplement Feature - September 2008
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Playing It Safe

A Closer Look at Playground Surfaces

By Hayli Morrison

Weed Control

Another maintenance concern, weed control, is virtually eliminated with turf and poured-in-place surfaces. Still, even if weeds aren't overtaking the playground itself, they can crop up along the borders. Park maintenance crews must face the challenge of controlling these problems throughout their public use areas in a manner that is both effective and safe for exposure to children, pets and the environment. Though the debate over chemical maintenance has long been overlooked or even completely ignored, rising environmental and safety concerns are pushing the issue to the forefront of the industry.

"These recreational parks and facilities are probably fielding a lot of questions from the public, as well they should because these pesticides are designed to kill living things and children are especially susceptible to that," said Rachel Rosenberg, executive director of the Illinois-based Safer Pest Control Project. "Biologically speaking, their organs are still developing and their metabolism is quicker so their exposure is greater. For instance, they're running barefoot and touching things, hugging the dog who was on the lawn, then putting their hands in their mouth, and so their exposure is greater."

It's an important consideration because studies have shown a strong correlation between chemical herbicides and increased cancer risk in dogs and children. Two separate studies by Purdue University and the American Veterinary Medical Association found that lawn maintenance chemicals could increase the risk of canine bladder cancer and other cancers by as much as sevenfold. In children, exposure to such chemicals has been linked to a significantly increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, according to a 2000 study published in Cancer magazine.

The Safer Pest Control Project has operated since 1994 as the only organization in Illinois dedicated to eliminating the risks associated with chemical maintenance in parks and playgrounds. The organization's efforts have been particularly effective in Chicago, where close to 90 percent of public parks take a natural approach to lawn maintenance by avoiding chemical weed control. Rosenberg said part of the effort includes educating the public that dandelions in public parks are actually a good thing, signifying a healthy, chemical-free lawn. An SPCP-sponsored natural lawncare seminar in February was "incredibly popular," Rosenberg said, adding that the organization is planning another such seminar soon.

"People are scrambling for this information," she said. "A lot of park districts attended this meeting, where their managers are interested in reducing or eliminating their herbicide application."