Safety of Playground Equipment

Archived Q&A and Reviews


Arsenic in playground structures?

Dec 2004

There was a discussion about arsenic (or some other poison) that was found in older wooden playground structures a while ago. I couldn't find it, so could you all give me the low-down on it. Is it a real danger, or a rumor? Are there particular parks to avoid or ways to tell what is safe and what isn't? Thanks. Anon

There's an organization called the Safe Playground Project that is focused on just this issue. I think their website is still rudimentary, but should have the basic info (and contact info). The address is brg

I cannot speak about any specific play structures, but have read a bit on pressure-treated lumber. Until recently, all pressure treated wood has been treated with CCA (chromated copper arsenate), which will release arsenic when rubbed, cut, abraded, etc. So in addition to concerns about playing on the structure itself, the soil/sand beneath a CCA-treated play structure (or deck) may be contaminated. I believe it is being phased out. According to the EPA web site: ''February 12, 2002, the EPA announced a voluntary decision by the industry to discontinue the consumer uses of CCA. The discontinued uses include dimensional lumber and wood used in play structures, decks, picnic tables, landscaping timbers, residential fencing, patios, and walkways/boardwalks. Dimension or dimensional ! lumber is defined as lumber that is from 2'' up to, but not including, 5'' thick, and that is 2'' or more in width. Dimension also is classified as framing, joists, planks, and rafters.'' After 2003, stores could sell existing stock (for residential use), but are not getting any more.

CCA-treated wood is being replaced with new types of pressure-treated wood that do not contain any arsenic. They still look very much the same - regular indentations where the chemical was forced in under pressure, and a greenish tinge (from copper component). ACQ lumber is treated with alkaline copper quaternary, and CBA uses copper boron azole.(The structure mentioned in the last few newletters may have used one of these new, non-arsenic, pressure-treated materials.) Hard to say whether these will be found to be harmful in the future, but at least they don't contain arsenic. The scraps are not considered hazardous waste. Note that if you build with ACQ or CA lumber, you have to use stainless steel (preferrred) or hot-dip galvanized (acceptable) hardware - screws, nails, etc. - because the high copper content will corrode standard hardware. R.K.

Cancer risk in playground equipment?

Nov 2003

I'm trying to make sense of a news story I just read about the EPA finding that kids who are exposed to treated wood (like on playground equipment)are at elevated risk of some cancers. How serious a risk is this? anon

The way to make sense of all such statistics is to find out what the base rate of risk is. For example, if a story says that kids exposes to such- and-such are at 10% higher risk for disease X, and the normal risk of the disease is .01% (meaning ten kids out of every 100,000 get it), then the risk for kids exposed to such-and-such is .011% (meaning 11 kids out of every 100,000 get it). Ten percent increased risk looks like a big deal, and in one way it is -- but if the base rate is small to begin with (as is the case with most cancer in children), it doesn't mean that huge numbers of children will get cancer. kd

I think the risk is quite serious, and it concerns me greatly. The pressurized woods are treated with arsenic (a heavy metal) to make them weather resistant. However, when it rains, arsenic leaches out of the wood, into the surrounding ground and whatever touches it. Arsenic is extremely carcinogenic. It's appalling, and it's EVERYWHERE! There are lumber yards where the workers refuse to handle the stuff, because of it's toxicity (my father is a contractor, that's how I know). I would do everything I could to avoid having my children around that stuff. Next year, it will finally be illegal to sell it, but that doesn't address all the pressurized wood that is currently in use! No treated wood, please!

Just last week the EPA released its draft risk assessment addressing this very issue, that is, of playground equipment (wooden) treated with chromated copper arsenate or CCA. It has found that indeed, children who play on CCA treated equipment do face an increased risk of cancer primarily related to the presence of arsenic. This coincides with the CPSC's recent risk assessment that found the same thing. It does depend of course on various factors, and I would urge you to go to the EPA's website to read the draft risk assessment. It is very long, but you can read the executive summary. I work for the SF Parks dept. and have been very involved recently in evaluation of all of our playgrounds for the presence of arsenic so that we can ensure the structures are adequately sealed (which does afford some protection, but how much is unknown; there are longer term plans to remove such structures as money becomes available).

I would recommend talking to your local park dept. to see what they are doing about it. Also, if you don't know if the structure you are playing on contains CCA then asssume it does. Then be sure to wash children's hands with water/soap after playing on it, and definitely before they eat anything. Hand to mouth contact is the primary route of exposure here.

An aside; children who also are exposed to CCA-treated decks at home increase thier risk, and kids who live in warm climates have an increased risk due to being outside more. So the answer to your question is yes, there appears to be an increased risk of cancer, but there are things you as a parent can do about it until such time as our cities can afford to replace all CCA treated structures. Hilary

If memory serves, I believe the City of Berkeley replaced all the treated wood in its playgrounds at great expense some years ago, because of these same concerns. Probably other cities and school playgrounds have done the same. If you want to confirm this, you could check with your city's recreation department. Here is the web site for Berkeley's: (This is a great website by the way - there is a list and map of all the parks with very detailed information about each one, also new and ongoing projects, etc.) Ginger