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Arsenic in the playground

13-Feb-2012 [1024]

posted Jan-Feb 2003

Arsenic Playgounds

In the second week of January, Burkhard Mausberg of Environmental Defense Canada sent Jutta Mason an e-mail giving her a "heads up" about a press conference the following day. And no wonder: it turns out that Dufferin Grove Park is the poster park for arsenic in playground sand. When Mausberg's group measured arsenic levels last summer, they took a sand sample beside our pressure-treated playground structure. Our playground registered the second-highest arsenic levels in Toronto playground parks - 48.2 parts per million versus 25.3 ppm at Dovercourt Park versus 2.6 ppm at Laughlin Park, at Vaughan and Oakwood). The report can be read online at There are four nice pictures of our playground, as the report's main illustrations.

Arsenic occurs naturally in soil at concentrations from 4.8 to 13.6 ppm, so at 48.2 ppm it would seem we have a problem. Burkhard told us that last summer the Parks Department itself asked the Finance Committee for money to seal the existing pressure-treated playground structures (with an oil-based wood sealant) and to replace the sand. But that would have cost the city $300,000, and evidently Mayor Lastman vetoed the expense. Instead the city commissioned another sand analysis of city playgrounds, a bargain costing tens of thousands instead of hundreds of thousands.

Environmental Defense released their seven-city study on January 15. Claire Tucker Reid, general manager of Parks and Recreation, put out a press release the following day, saying that 31 Toronto parks playgrounds have been shown to be leaching arsenic and that details will be made known to City Council's budget advisory committee on January 27. (We tried to find out what the city's study shows about Dufferin Park, in time for this newsletter, but the general manager's office did not respond to the question.)

At Friday night supper there were various theories. Most people found the Parks Department's secrecy suspicious. But there were different ideas about what the numbers mean. Someone said they'd heard there's more arsenic in a shrimp stir-fry than in treated wood. More than a few people felt that playground equipment manufacturers might find it useful to promote panic. There certainly seemed to be a near-consensus that the steel-and-plastic playgrounds which are replacing wooden play structures are ugly and prison-like - with all the vertical bars - and hold little interest for children.

It may be that the most straightforward thing for our park is for parents to get together on the first warm day in March and paint the playground structure with sealant themselves. How long can that job take? Then the city can come in with their case loader and trucks and take out the sand, and bring in some fresh low-arsenic sand. (The sand pit needs a top-up anyway - its sand is not contaminated but it's just getting low - so the sand trucks could take care of both areas at once.)

With the immediate danger out of the way, park users could then have some imaginative discussions about the long term equipment replacement, to make sure that the future playground suits our philosophy about children's play. Watch the park bulletin board and the park list serve for more information as it becomes publicly known. Being pro-active may be important here. (The city's information page on pressure-treated wood is at

posted April-May 2003

Arsenic in the playground?

In the last newsletter we reported on the findings of Environmental Defense Canada concerning the levels of leached arsenic from pressure-treated wood in city playgrounds. Their report listed our park as the second-highest in Toronto, showing 48.2 parts per million of arsenic in the sand surrounding our playground climber. At the time of that newsletter the city was just putting the finishing touches on their report about arsenic levels, based on testing that had been done all over the city during the previous summer. The City of Toronto results turned out to be quite different from those of Environmental Defense. They showed our playground as having arsenic levels much lower than the federal government's safe limit. Our levels were listed as 6 parts per million.

Since we have a pressure-treated playground structure, that finding is just as puzzling as the first one. We spoke to Steve Ruminsky, a Richmond Hill environmental consultant from Decommissioning Consulting Services Limited, which did the city's study. He said that whereas the Environmental Defense study was based on taking one soil sample per site (which that group admitted is not considered adequate as a research method), his company took 6 samples per site. These were: one composite soil sample taken from 10 locations directly under the play structure, two soil samples around the structure, one control sample ten metres away from the structure, and two surface samples ("dislodgable particles") taken from the structure itself, one on a hand rail and one on a vertical post.

We asked Mr.Ruminsky why our treated wood structure would be so low in its leaching of arsenic if treated wood has been banned from sale in most of North America. He said he didn't know, although it's possible that older structures gradually have less arsenic to leach (ours was put up in 1984). We asked him how much it would cost to re-test our playground. He said the actual lab cost is $18 a sample. The technician to collect the 6 new samples would cost between $500 and $600, and the interpretation of the results would bring the consulting company's fee up to $1000 plus lab costs. Whew!


Next we asked Mine Elbe at Environmental Defense whether they might be interested in re-testing our playground. She said yes. They would be willing to cover the cost of 3 soil samples plus one control sample. As soon as the date and time is set for testing (there may be several different dates because Mine is interested in testing before and after a rainfall to see if that makes a difference to the results), we'll post that information on the web site. Anyone who wants to see how the testing is done can be there. (If you want to be notified by e-mail, get on the "kids" park list by e-mailing

And if there seems to be a need to paint our playground structure with a wood sealant to protect the children playing on it, park manager James Dann has said that the city would pay for the materials if we want to have a playground-user painting day. (Could be fun, with a campfire lunch and games for kids off to the side).

City news release of January 24, 2003.

Integrated Management Plan on CCA Treated-Wood Play Structures at City Playgrounds

List of Playgrounds with CCA Treated Wood that require Remedial Action

Comparison of Environmental Defence Canada findings and City Study Results

posted May 2003

Arsenic re-testing

Read Veronica's report >>

Veronica Pochmursky has played shinny hockey at Dufferin rink for three years. She's also an environmental worker, and she's done some research for us, on arsenic and kids. She wrote up her findings and e-mailed them, with this note: "Please bear in mind when posting this article, I am not a professional toxicologist. I did run my calculations past my cousin, who does work professionally as a toxicologist, so I'm pretty comfortable with what I've presented. But, my last paragraph says it all. Risk is a very personal thing and what is acceptable to one person may be totally unacceptable to another. Parents should inform themselves and make up their own minds. Personally, I think there are more pressing issues (smoking and too many cars) to fight, so I'm not taking up the playground structure fight." Read more >>

posted June 2003

Good news on arsenic in the playground

After Environmental Defence Canada called a press conference in March to announce leaching of arsenic in the sand around pressure-treated playground equipment (with our park listed as one of the worst in the country, 48.2 parts arsenic per million), lots of people got worried. The City's Parks Division had commissioned a study of playground arsenic levels the previous summer. They released their findings the week after the alarming ones. According to the Parks Department study, our playground equipment was NOT leaching much arsenic at all (just over 6 parts per million parts of sand, with anything under 12 ppm considered acceptable).

What to believe? When there are two such contradictory findings, it seems a good idea to look into the matter some more. The Parks Division was unwilling to re-test, but Environmental Defence said they would co-operate with us. Veronica Pochmursky, a shinny hockey player at our rink who has become a good friend of the park, agreed to take on the testing from our end (she has done this work professionally for many years). So BoAnne Tran from Environmental Defence came to the park on Environment Day (April 26) and joined Veronica in taking seven new samples, with many park users observing. They took more surface samples, like those the city's testers had taken, and deeper samples, like those previously taken by Environmental Defence. They checked around both the 1984 playground structures and the 1998 structures. Interesting! We brought the samples to a lab in Mississauga, and now the results have come back. They show even lower readings of arsenic than the Parks Division study showed, ranging from 1.2ppm to 4.1ppm, with the exception of one sample at 7.7ppm. Even that higher sample is still well below the acceptable level of 12 parts arsenic per million parts of sand.

Carol Cormier of the Parks Division had promised that if our tests showed a higher than acceptable arsenic reading, the city would provide the expensive sealant for our playground structures. Many people from the neighbourhood already volunteered to help seal the playground. Now it turns out it's not necessary. Wonderful! And parents can let their children play at the park with their minds at ease.

We are sharing the cost of the re-testing with Environmental Defence. Our portion is $51.66, which we'll pay by collecting a loonie each from 51 people in the playground and/ or at Friday night supper. Beyond that, Veronica Pochmursky has assembled a whole lot of background information about arsenic and its effects. Her article is posted on our web site: Read more >>