Feature Article - January 2009
Find a printable version here

Safe Havens

Building & Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie

PVC: Safe or Unsafe?

As the years pass, particular safety concerns tend to rise up into the spotlight.

One issue that's becoming a big one in playground safety is the use of PVC in playground equipment. Is it a legitimate health risk?

For some, PVC is a welcome building component over steel (which can be heavier and more expensive), aluminum (which, like steel, can conduct heat—a concern for playgrounds in the full, hot sun) and wood (which can wear out quicker—especially if untreated).

While some consider PVC a potential risk that's a toxic threat to ecosystems, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has concluded through researching claims of the dangers of PVC that use of the substance "is not a safety issue on playground equipment."

There are concerns that the byproducts of PVC contain compounds similar to dioxin, and that those compounds can be bad for not only one's health, but also to the environment. However, in 2006 the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that neither the production nor the incineration of PVC "…is a significant source of chlorinated dioxins in the environment."

In other words, the dioxin produced is in far too small amounts to cause any type of significant harm. "There is absolutely no data, none, to support the notion that PVC will harm or injure children who play on PVC-coated play equipment," said IPEMA President Tim Ahern. "IPEMA is always interested in reviewing new safety information, including any independent, third-party, scientific studies concerning PVC in playground equipment."

Experts do acknowledge that PVC does not biodegrade easily, but that it's not a significant problem since there are no concerns about the release of toxic chemicals during degradation. Also, PVC products occupy an estimated 1 percent of U.S. landfills.

Verbeck urges people to use caution before jumping onto an anti-PVC bandwagon. He uses PVC for irrigation, water features and musical instruments. "Unless the material is burned, there is no evidence of toxic exposure," he said. "This issue reminds me of the whole CCA scare—yet another material I wouldn't want to see processed or disposed of, but its use on playgrounds has no recordable effect on the health of children."