Old tires spur health concern

Some parents and city officials are advocating safer alternatives to rubber playground mulch.

Ryan Faircloth

When Nancy Brown registered her child for preschool at Lyndale Community School, she noticed a strong odor wafting from the school’s playground.

The odor was that of rubber tires from the mulch on the playground’s infill.

After researching the mulch, Brown discovered that there are health concerns associated with the recycled mulch and decided to act. She made a petition urging Minneapolis Public Schools to remove the materials, which has gained more than 2,400 signatures.

Now, the Minneapolis City Council has taken interest in the topic and will take public comment on use of waste tires in city schools July 11.

The debate comes as other school districts in the state, including Duluth and Edina, have debated the use of recycled rubber on playgrounds and sports fields. 

Groups like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said they would study the issue to determine whether the recycled tires pose a health risk to children. 

Lee Setter, MPS manager for environmental health and safety, said the district started using the rubber to protect kids from falls.

“Our focus is all about injury prevention, and rubber mulch … for the amount of thickness of material you have and the height of the equipment, provides the best fall protection,” he said.

Setter said the district knows of the health worries raised by parents and has delayed adding mulch to other playgrounds — which now use wood chips or sand — until they hear community feedback.

“We’re a public school district and … obviously care deeply about kids’ safety and health, and we want to make the best decision in that regard,” he said. 

But Setter said the district doesn’t want to react too fast until the health risks are proven.

Some chemicals present in the tire infill include heavy metals such as lead, irritants and known or suspected carcinogens. 

While long-term health effects aren’t known, Brown still said the material shouldn’t be used.

“To me, the bottom line is that any material that is toxic to kids should not be on the table as one of the viable options,” she said.

Ward 2 Council member Cam Gordon said he too is worried about possible exposure to the mulch.

“There are a variety of different … chemicals that are defined as hazardous chemicals, and so I’m worried about people being exposed to it,” he said.

Gordon said some of his concern is from stories he’s heard of children who sometimes chew on small pieces of tire mulch when they play.

Brown said she’s heard similar concerns from other parents. 

“I’ve heard from many parents who talk about the river of black that is going down the bathtub drain as they try to scrub the tire residue off their kid’s skin after they’ve been playing in the tires,” she said.

Brown said she favors alternatives like wood chips, sand and engineered wood fiber. Engineered wood fiber is made with fall protection similar to tire mulch.

Brown said this alternative is used successfully by Saint Paul Public Schools, along with others in the state.

“My goal is to make sure that whatever infill is used is nontoxic and is not threatening kids’ long-term health,” she said.

Efforts to raise awareness of possible hazards also gained traction in this year’s Minnesota legislative session, where a bill was introduced to suspend the use of shredded tire mulch in athletic fields and playgrounds until 2019.

For now, Brown said she’s focused on getting the city to examine the material’s potential health impacts.

Gordon said he plans to take public comments on the matter, then direct city advisory groups for more detailed investigation. The soonest the council would take action is next year, he said. 

If nothing else, Gordon said the public comment will raise awareness and may cause the district to think harder about what infill to use in the future.