Get the Lead Out

ON A RECENT sunny afternoon, Front Park in St. Paul's North End neighborhood was crowded with children shouting, playing on the swings and in the sand. The boys chased the girls with squirt guns. One boy rocked quietly on the back of a metal pelican, its beak painted a vibrant yellow.

Doubtless, he had no idea that the yellow paint on that smiling beak registered startlingly high in lead content during a recent citywide test of paint on playground equipment. In fact, a chip of that yellow paint rated the highest of all 88 samples analyzed--205,000 parts per million (ppm) of lead, or nearly 342 times the 600 ppm that's risky to children. A mile up the street at North Dale Recreation Center, the paint on a red whirl that registered a troubling 42,900 ppm was chipping, with flakes the size of fingertips strewn in the sand--not surprising for equipment exposed to the elements for decades.

The city's testing, completed just before last Christmas, came in response to a federal Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) study released last fall. The CPSC analyzed paint from playgrounds nationwide, including Hazel Park Recreation Center in St. Paul. That sample contained dangerously high lead levels, which the city was instructed to clean up. St. Paul Parks and Rec officials told newspapers the city would "do whatever it takes to make it safe and legal and so on."

But in the nearly 10 months since the release of the CPSC report, nothing has been done at Hazel Park, according to parks Operations Manager Thomas Knutson. In fact, the cleanup is just beginning on those St. Paul playgrounds with levels of lead paint the city admits are dangerous, and no plans have been made to deal with less toxic but still hazardous paint at other sites.

According to the CPSC, daily ingestion of a lead paint chip the size of the head of a pencil eraser can quickly poison a child's blood, with effects ranging from learning disabilities and behavioral problems to brain damage and even death. Paint containing more than 600 ppm of lead has been banned since 1978. The CPSC says paint with lead content exceeding this threshold is "not hazard-free," and tells playground operators to ensure that equipment reaches "the lowest levels practicable."

On the heels of the federal study, St. Paul conducted its own survey. Of a total of 88 samples from 31 playgrounds, the city found paint containing more than 600 ppm on 37 pieces of equipment at 22 playgrounds. Parks Environmental Health Manager Ed Olsen got the survey results last December and decided that the 20 pieces of equipment that tested above 5,000 ppm would be replaced or stripped. Left untouched will be another 17 contaminated pieces; lead levels in six range from 2,500 to 5,000 ppm, the remaining 11 contain up to 2,500 ppm.

"You're talking about exposing young children," complains Patrick Reagan, a consultant for the Lead Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group concerned with lead hazards. "I would disagree with the city's assessment 100 percent. To argue that less than 5,000 ppm is acceptable is utter nonsense." The 600-ppm standard, he adds, isn't necessarily a level at which lead exposure becomes "safe," it's the level of risk found acceptable by Congress.

Though completed in December, the survey didn't land on Operations Manager Knutson's desk until the second week of July, which means that bids for abatement have just been circulated. Knutson hopes to have the work completed by late this fall--nearly a year after the CPSC told the city to take immediate action. The delay is inexcusable, says Reagan. "They should have planned to have it done by spring, when kids would want to play."

The concern over lead paint on playground equipment isn't confined to St. Paul city government. St. Paul Public Schools playgrounds are currently undergoing tests, while the city of Minneapolis parks are said to be clean. Minneapolis Public Schools' tests of its playground equipment revealed four contaminated samples, but officials claim the paint is in good condition. In Bloomington, which has seen only three or four lead poisonings in recent years, the Parks Department has replaced virtually all of its playground equipment with new structures made of rubber or wood.

Until St. Paul removes the hazardous paint from playgrounds, parents and children will be on their own. The CPSC recommends that parents discourage children from putting their hands into their mouths while on the playground to decrease the likelihood that paint chips or sand with paint dust or other residue is ingested.

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