Noe Valley Voice December-January 2006

Arsenic and Old Playgrounds

By Olivia Boler

On Oct. 7, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) and the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council, two non-governmental non-profit advocacy groups, conducted a test for arsenic at Mission Dolores Park Playground to create community awareness about the presence of the known carcinogen. The playground, located at the southern end of the park, near 20th Street, has structures made with pressure-treated wood that contains chromate copper arsenate (CCA), a common wood preservative until it was banned for residential use in 2004.

In California, any play structure made before the ban, as well as anything in people's homes built with CCA-treated lumber, including decks, benches, and planter boxes, probably has arsenic in it. Since 1992, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD) has not used CCA-treated wood for any new play structures. The city also regularly applies a protective seal to the older structures in the parks.

The October arsenic test involved wiping the surface of the play structures and taking a sample of the playground sand found right around them. (Arsenic can leach into the soil and bond with it.) While there are no documented cases of a child getting arsenic poisoning from playing on the city's play structures, scientists are still investigating the long-term effects. Some studies show that prolonged exposure to arsenic-treated wood increases the chances of developing cancer in the lungs, skin, bladder, and kidneys.

The Parks Council and CEH in conjunction with Friends of Dolores Park Playground, a community group, decided to do the test at Dolores Playground because the play structures were recently sealed (in July) and there are a lot of children who use the park every day. For the Parks Council, the arsenic testing is part of a larger playground safety "report card" program it started in early 2006 for all of San Francisco's playgrounds. "When CEH contacted us about doing the test, we thought it was a great way to enhance community awareness," says Colleen Flynn, who manages the council's stewardship program.

The test results showed that arsenic levels are low at Dolores Playground, but because the structure was recently sealed, they should be negative for CCA, says Juliana Gonzalez, the coordinator of CEH's Safe Playgrounds Project. "The values were 2.9 micrograms per 100 square centimeters on the wooden boat," she says of one of the play structures at the playground. "The risk factor associated with these levels is one in 10,000 cases of cancer associated with regular exposure to this source of arsenic." CEH considers "regular exposure" to mean a child playing on the structure every day and occasionally putting his hands in his mouth while playing. That child would have a 1 in 10,000 risk of developing cancer in his lifetime. While this is below the legal limit, Gonzalez would like to see the risk lowered to 1 in 1 million.

According to the city's web site, there are 32 play structures in San Francisco that have some CCA-treated wood. The proper procedure for containment is to apply a sealant on the wood that acts by confining the arsenic. Twenty-three city playgrounds, including Mission Dolores, Christopher Park, Potrero Hill, Glen Park, and McLaren Park, have all been sealed between 2004 and 2006. (Noe Courts Playground and Douglass Playground do not have CCA-treated wooden structures; Upper Noe Playground is currently going through a renovation and is due to reopen in 2008.) The sealant must be reapplied every two years. But according to Gonzalez, Dolores Playground's wood structures are not sealed with the correct sealant.

"They're using a green paint, and paint cracks and it's slippery. They should be using a stain that penetrates the wood. This is the most current technique to contain CCA." Also, high-traffic areas on the Dolores Park structures are already showing signs of wear, Gonzalez says. She says CEH appreciates all that RPD is doing, but that "there's a real need to stay on top of this."

Rose Marie Dennis, director of public affairs at the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, at press time had not received any information from CEH or the Parks Council. "The department can't come out with a position on any recommendations until we see what they have to say," Dennis says. CEH and the Council are currently drafting a letter to RPD with test results and recommendations, and will send it to the department some time in December.

Dennis says that while she recognizes the efforts of CEH and the Council to raise awareness, she does not want parents to panic. "There are no documented cases of any problems with CCA in our play structures. Of course, we would not leave these playgrounds open for use if we thought they were dangerous. Our big concern at RPD is not freaking out parents about this."

She says that as money becomes available, the city will replace the playground structures as it did in 2005 at Walter Haas Playground on Diamond Heights Boulevard. That money came from a bond program passed by San Francisco voters in 2000, as well as from gifts and grants.

Flynn agrees that the city is taking measures to deal with arsenic, but stresses that her organization's goal is simply to create community awareness. "We want to see neighborhood and 'friends' groups advocating for their parks. If anyone is interested in starting a group, we would be excited to work with them."

Dennis of RPD welcomes these groups as well, and encourages them to contact her department with any questions about arsenic testing as well as fundraising. "It's good to take a sense of ownership in your parks," she says. "As for the arsenic, we just don't want to build up any unnecessary anxiety."

What Parents and Care Givers Can Do

* Wash children's hands with soap and water after they've played on an older wooden playground structure.

* Check for splinters on the structures--the exposed wood has broken through the sealant, so arsenic can therefore enter the bloodstream more rapidly.

* Encourage babies, toddlers, and very young children not to eat sand or put their hands in their mouths, especially near a CCA-treated play structure.

* Check any play structures in your own home for CCA-treated wood. A kit is available at the Safe Playgrounds Project web site,

* Ask your daycare providers about play structures at their facilities.

* Use a tablecloth on park picnic tables and don't eat on CCA-treated play structures.

For information on CCA testing and playground safety, go to or To contact the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, call 415-831-2700 or e-mail