Durham County

What are your kids playing on? Why Durham will replace this park's rubber mulch

Shredded tire rubber mulch at East Durham Park will be replaced, after the Durham City Council told city staff to move forward before results of an Environmental Protection Agency study on its use.
Shredded tire rubber mulch at East Durham Park will be replaced, after the Durham City Council told city staff to move forward before results of an Environmental Protection Agency study on its use. dvaughan@heraldsun.com

The shredded tire mulch in East Durham Park will be replaced after parent concerns about potential health hazards.

While city staff members had been waiting on an Environmental Protection Agency study, the Durham City Council decided to go ahead and replace it.

Council member DeDreana Freeman has led the effort to remove the tire rubber mulch from the playground on East Main Street and replace it with engineered wood fiber. The council has been discussing it off and on for months as they responded to complaints that materials and chemicals in tires could be hazardous to children.

Parent Kristin Henry has asked the council repeatedly to replace the mulch, and thanked Freeman last week for working toward a solution. Freeman said during the April 5 council work session that her concerns were both that the rubber mulch was a choking hazard as well as potential health risks associated with using recycled tires.

The city sent off samples of the rubber mulch to be tested for hazardous levels of lead and cadmium at an independent lab, which found no danger. Independent labs can't test for properties that have not been ruled on by the EPA, according to the city.

Mayor Steve Schewel said he has reservations about replacing the mulch before the EPA study results, but would go along with the council majority.

The EPA is scheduled to release a report mid-2018, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Consumer Product Safety Commission, called the "Federal Research Action Plan on Recycled Tire Crumb Used on Playing Fields and Playgrounds."

"This park was built as a state-of-the-art park, built as especially safe," Schewel said, because the rubber mulch was a safe surface for slips and falls.

The playground has swings, slides and climbing structures. The mulch is soft to walk on with shoes and surrounds the entire playground. Outside the playground, East Durham Park includes a grassy field and picnic shelter. Some of the rubber mulch pieces are scattered in the grass outside the playground perimeter. Just up East Main Street from the park is Y.E. Smith Elementary School.

The playground was built in 2007 and funded by a grant from Gametime. It opened with celebration and council support. Other parks funded by grants included Red Maple Park Playground and Crest Street Playground, which both received Kaboom grants.

Because of the mulch beneath their feet four and five year olds were able to swing on the swings, slide down the slide and generally romp to their hearts content on the new playground at The Learning Collaborative.

Is there a hazard?

"I don’t think there’s any good science to support the removal of this," Schewel said. The independent lab results showed zero lead and the same amount of cadmium as found in garden soil, he said. Those who want it removed are motivated on behalf of the community and children, he said, but he doesn't think the science is there.

"If people don’t want to wait for the EPA report, that’s council’s prerogative," Schewel said.

In Minnesota, The Duluth News Tribune reported last year that the Duluth School Board voted to replace playground rubber mulch with a wood product after parent advocacy.

The Northeast Central Durham Leadership Council also asked the city to remove the rubber mulch in November.

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said making a change because of residents' requests, but for reasons city staff cannot document, will set a precedent, and that the council is crossing a threshold.

Freeman said "as a parent understanding how chemicals interact with your child, is the threshold I want to set." She is worried about the potential environmental hazard.

"I would err more on the side of caution and not have those around my child," she said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said the issue is difficult "because we don't have clear science." But she also doesn't want to wait on a study from the EPA under the current presidential administration.

"I feel like folks in the community have largely stopped using the park because they’re afraid of the health risk," Johnson said.

Council member Vernetta Alston said she thinks the cost is worth it because of the potential risk if the mulch is found to be a health hazard by the EPA.

How much it will cost

Because wood mulch wouldn't be installed as far below the ground surface of the playground as rubber mulch, the city will look at taking out the playground structures. Durham Parks and Recreation planners estimated the cost of demolition, excavation, replacing drainage and installing new equipment would cost $130,000 but $1,500 annual maintenance.

If the city kept the equipment and poured rubber safety flat surfacing, it would cost $80,000. The staff doesn't recommend the second choice because play equipment has an estimated five-year lifespan and rubber safety surfacing has a 10-year lifespan.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said Tuesday that city staff will bring back the cost estimate for replacing the mulch to the council before July. He said the cost would be part of the 2018-19 fiscal year, and that East Durham Park's playground would move in front of other parks projects. He said it would take several months after council makes a decision on the replacement plan.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan