Feature Article - January 2009
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Safe Havens

Building & Maintaining Safe Playgrounds

By Richard Zowie

Furthermore, Verbeck is concerned about the materials that would replace PVC. Wood will rot a lot quicker, he said, and possibly could result in a structure failure. "This would be a real recordable effect on the welfare of children," he added. "Replacing PVC decking with another material may lead to early corrosion of the deck, which would promote more sales but also increase the incidence of structural failure. Have we really created a safer environment by removing something that wasn't even substantiated with evidence in the first place?"

Eric Torrey, a marketing director for a playground-manufacturing company, still has concerns about PVC—particularly when it's used as a soft, rubbery coating on decks, stairs and ramps for metal playground equipment. The additives that make the PVC soft are phthalates, which, he noted, can be a potentially serious health hazard. Phthalates are chemical compounds of phthalic acid and are used primarily as a "plasticizer"—meaning that they are added to plastics to prolong their lifespan and increase their flexibility.

Torrey's company does not use PVC in its environmentally friendly playgrounds, and other companies have announced they will eliminate PVC from their playground equipment, too.

"Although it has been a topic of discussion for years, many manufacturers of metal playgrounds have been very slow to address the issue of PVC and phthalates," he said.

Torrey notes The PVC Handbook, published by C.P. Hall, which states that "semi-rigid" PVC contains about 10 percent phthalates while flexible PVC contains as much as 50 percent by weight. Also, a phthalate called DEHP can "migrate" out of plastic as a vapor at temperatures exceeding 86 degrees.

Whether these concerns are legitimate is your call. According to a July 2005 (updated in January 2007) report on phthalates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that the health effects of phthalates aren't yet known and that more research is needed.

But many manufacturers are asking, why take a chance? In 2007, attorneys general for New York and Illinois announced that Wal-Mart not only would no longer sell PVC baby bibs but would also no longer use PVC in any products intended for use by children. Later that year, California banned the use of phthalates in all products designed for children.

"Europe has had a similar ban for several years," Torrey said.

At the federal level, President George W. Bush in 2008 signed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. This new law, which goes into effect 180 days after its enactment, will prohibit the manufacture for sale and distribution in commerce or import to America of any children's toy or child-care equipment that contains more than 0.1 percent of certain types of phthalates.