H1N1, Concussions, and Wood Mulch. What have we done to our playgrounds?

Every day, countless families set out for a pleasurable trip to one of America’s numerous parks.

As one’s feet clump across those rock-hard pieces of semi-frozen, compacted wood mulch, the responsible parent is horrified. Aside from the fact that frozen wood mulch is about as soft as granite, visitors are likely to actually be able to feel the crunch under their feet in numerous spots. All one can do is hope and pray that none of the children will fall.

All of which begs the ridiculous question-Isn’t the point of playground surfacing to cushion to ground? To put it bluntly, this is absurd! Is this what park officials and schools are letting kids play on?! Has there ever been a child who didn’t fall at least a couple of times in the course of a good day’s play? How can children be allowed to play on a surface that is as hard as a rock? Has nobody ever heard of broken bones, concussions, spinal injuries?

Upon expressing dismay to the office of the local Park and Recreation Department, the response is generally a patronizing reassurance. After all, this wood mulch, commonly referred to as Engineered Wood Fiber, is a certified product that meets all applicable guidelines, with certifications from the ASTM, CPSC and IPEMA. These are credible entities; and if they aren’t worried, why should parents be concerned?

Obviously, these condescending representatives have never stepped on a playground! Sure, wood mulch is tested. But it’s tested when it’s brand new, leveled to the perfect depth, unfrozen, untouched, and still nice and fluffy, fresh from the tree. It may be safe in the lab-but children play on playgrounds, not in laboratories.

What happens two or three months later, when the mulch has gotten wet and compacted? What happens when that fresh, moist, proven-to-be-fire-resistant wood carpet dries out after a good few weeks in the sun? A couple of months down the line, does anyone bother to check to ensure that it still meets the safety standards? Not the ASTM, or CPSC-that’s for sure. And not the officials in charge of parks and schools either, because they’re smugly relying on a guarantee that’s completely irrelevant in real-life situations.

A bit of research reveals that the mulch that is being marketed as playground surfacing appears to be the very same product used to mulch gardens. Some of these wood fiber surfaces can come from old, shredded-down pallets. Often, wood pallets are made from treated wood which has proven to be toxic-not to mention the nails and staples that could remain mixed into the shredded mulch. Still and all, wood mulch is one of the most widely-used ‘safety’ surfaces in the country.

 Of course, the home pages are covered with lovely pictures and descriptions of this so-called safety product. Despite the glorious catch-phrases proudly displayed on the front pages, they can’t entirely hide the truth-they could get sued. Thus we have the long list of disclaimers. Some direct quotes:

«During freezing conditions, all of our indoor playground equipment surfaces will naturally be less resilient, particularly with poor drainage. Restrict use of the area accordingly.»

Another site: «Should there be moisture retention in the wood fiber system, it will freeze when the temperature drops below the freezing mark. Please check your surface frequently in winter weather. When the surface is frozen, the impact attenuation properties of wood fiber are lost and for this reason, the play area should not be used.»

Are they seriously suggesting that playgrounds be shut down for months on end? When winter and fall start to converge on each other, the nights may be below freezing, but the days often reach the 50 degree mark-a temperature that most schools deem suitable for outdoor play. How much time does it take for frozen wood mulch to defrost? Does anybody know or care? Why are towns and schools not informing parents and children of this? Not that any normal child is going to refrain from using the playground in cold weather because he carefully read the attached disclaimers. But why are parents not questioning this safety option?

Despite the hazards of frozen mulch, one would think that at least in the heat of summer, it would be safe. Case in point: an article on the web about a school in Arlington, Texas that has a video showing their playground spontaneously combusting due to heat. Apparently, somebody forgot to reapply the ‘sufficient moisture’-which, according to the manufacturers, wood mulch is not supposed to have, since it freezes solid in cold weather.

Of course, the websites reassure the users, one could always choose to apply a fire retardant instead of going with the moisture option. So much for the natural, chemical-free alternative.

Apparently, given the fact that it is so very weather-sensitive, wood mulch is simply not appropriate for outdoor use-by the manufacturers’ own admission. One leading manufacturer states that «Due to weather conditions, poor drainage, too much shade, or a combination thereof, bacteria may rapidly colonize, which may lead to fungus growth on the wood fiber. If the fungus becomes visible, simply scoop out and dispose of the fungus.»

The site fails to mention anything about the bacteria that rapidly colonizes without anyone’s noticing. It would not be surprising if animals were to routinely use these surfaces as ‘litter boxes’-and it’s hard to imagine a better surface for bacterial growth than slightly moist, rotting wood mulch. Many schools have begun to bleach the children’s desks in light of recent H1N1 flu scare. Is anyone bleaching the playground mulch to prevent the spread of «bacteria that may rapidly colonize»? Imagine a whole community of children contracting H1N1-just from playing on the playground!

Obviously, there has to be a better way.

Visits to parks in other areas will bring the visitor in contact with numerous playgrounds surfaced with rubber. What a difference! Whether the solid, poured rubber type of surface, or the loose fill, rubber mulch type, these playgrounds are soft and cushiony-the way that a playground should feel! Even adults often report the sudden urge to jump and bounce on the elastic surface!

Just based on the consistency alone, it would seem pretty clear that rubber is the safest way to go. Sure enough, the research supports this hunch. According to the website surfaces have been proven __title__ rubber playground surface] (yes, even in those laboratory tests) to have the highest shock absorbency level of any surfacing material in the country. And unlike wood mulch, they stand up to this reputation even on the playground.

Rubber surfaces never freeze and harden. They don’t retain dangerous heat levels in the summer. They are heavier than wood mulch, and resist displacement. They never degrade or decompose. They don’t attract bacteria, and they don’t retain slippery moisture. No disclaimers.

A nice benefit is that most often, rubber surfaces are made of 100% recycled rubber, saving hundreds of tons’ worth of rubber from ending up in the landfills. What a pleasure-the safest option for children is also the most environmentally responsible one! Not surprisingly, the Obama family chose a recycled rubber product for the newly installed playground at the White House-a fitting testimonial to the green era in which we live.

The bottom line is patently obvious. To continue to use a product that is so clearly unsafe-not to mention environmentally destructive, as hundreds of thousands of trees are sacrificed on the altar of profitability for wood mulch manufacturers-is more than unfair to children. It is downright reckless! As concerned adults, we owe it to our children to demand that our playgrounds conform to the highest standards of safety.

In years past, playgrounds were often set directly into the concrete, resulting in hundreds of thousands of serious injuries. American society has moved past that, and today, rare is the playground that does not have some sort of safety surfacing. Still, thanks to wood mulch and similarly unsafe surfacing options, even today over 500 kids end up in the emergency room every single day as a result of playground injuries.

As a society, we can do better. We have better options. The time has come for us to use them, moving forwards towards a safer play environment and a safer earth.