09/17/2010 10:26 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

City Playgrounds Tackle Toxic Soil and Equipment

New Orleans city and school leaders want to remove contaminants from playgrounds, where even the most benign-looking spots can harbor arsenic on swing sets and lead and arsenic in soil. Government and non-profit initiatives and weather have combined to help playgrounds, though more needs to be done, experts say. One plus for playspots was that sediment from Katrina covered up soil contaminants in many areas so kids have less contact with them. And newly installed equipment and mats, supplied by national non-profit KaBOOM!, have cut exposure to toxins at public and school playgrounds.

In a hundred recovery projects announced last month, Mayor Mitch Landrieu listed over a dozen playgrounds and ball fields that are slated for renovation. Playground makeovers usually include environmentally safe equipment and fixtures because of laws passed against arsenic-treated wood and lead use in the last fifteen years.

The Mayor's office is taking other steps too, and according to City Hall last week, a Gentilly neighborhood playground will be temporarily closed soon to test for contaminants. Charles Allen, III, the new advisor to Mayor Landrieu for Environmental and Coastal Affairs, said,

"the city is concerned about the findings in the 2007 Natural Resources Defense Council report, of which we were recently notified. While we undertake new testing, we are seeking guidance from the La. Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency. In the interim, Milne will be closed to protect the safety of our children."

Wheels in post-Katrina New Orleans move, albeit slowly at times. Arsenic has been a concern for awhile at Alexander Milne Playground on Filmore Avenue. In March 2007, soil at the playground tested by the NRDC -- a national group of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists -- contained 18 milligrams per kilogram of arsenic, exceeding the Louisiana Dept. of Environmental Quality's cleanup standard of 12 mg/kg.

In early 2007, NRDC conducted soil testing in 116 areas in the city and found that two public playgrounds -- Alexander Milne and Schabel Playspot in Gentilly -- along with six schools, including four run by the Recovery School District and two by the Orleans Parish School Board -- had over 12 milligrams per kilogram of arsenic in their soil. NRDC said further assessments of each site were needed to assess health risks. In the areas cited, the NRDC recommended that children not play in bare soil, and that they wash their hands after playing outside and remove their shoes before entering homes. Arsenic cleanup measures, the NRDC said, would require removing inches of topsoil, discarding the soil safely and replacing it with fresh topsoil.

Ken Jones, RSD spokesman, said "we received a copy of a study that was performed either in 2006 or 2007 that said that many of the school playgrounds had high concentrations of arsenic. In particular, it cited Craig." Craig Elementary in Mid City was on the NRDC's worry list. "We had our own study done and did not find any arsenic," Jones said. "We found other stuff, however, and worked with Louisiana DEQ to solve the problem."

As part of the Recovery School District's demolition contracts, preliminary environmental studies are done routinely, and officials respond to them when needed, Jones said."The RSD only tests the sites where we are either demolishing or building a new school or doing a major renovation," he said.

Jones said underground storage tanks containing diesel or heating fuel were discovered at several school sites undergoing work, and were removed, along with contaminated soil near the tanks.

As for policies affecting public playgrounds, "soil sampling is not part of the city construction or renovation process at playgrounds or other facilities," a spokesman for Mayor Landrieu's office said. "After Katrina, but before residents returned, the state took extensive, soil samples throughout the city, and made many tests to determine that the soil in New Orleans was not contaminated by flooding."

For the city's capital projects, the Mayor's spokesman said,

"independent testing labs take soil samples prior to and after lead-based paint abatement work to determine the existing baseline-lead levels in the soil, if any, and to confirm that the work did not increase that level."

Howard Mielke, Tulane chemistry research professor with the Tulane-Xavier Center for Environmental Research, said that arsenic and chromium leached into soils in city playgrounds for decades from swing sets and other equipment -- like tables, benches and fences -- built from lumber treated with chromated copper arsenate or CCA. Wood preservative CCA is used in warm, humid climates to keep fungi and termites at bay. The Environmental Protection Agency banned CCA as a preservative for most woods in 2004, however.

In a study released in January, Mielke and researchers at Xavier and other universities found that in 38 play areas surveyed in New Orleans in summer 2008, 14 of them, or nearly 37%, had CCA-treated wood. Researchers recommended that CCA-treated wood be coated with sealant and rigorously maintained and that it be replaced eventually with safer materials. Soil near CCA-treated wood in playgrounds should be replaced too, Mielke said, since the presence of arsenic is hazardous to children given their hand-to-mouth habits.

In recent years, much of the city's old playground equipment has been removed and replaced, mainly by donated equipment from non-profit KaBOOM!, Mielke and city school officials said. KaBOOM!, based in Washington, DC, coordinates businesses and communities to build playgrounds and sports fields across the nation.

Lead dust from gasoline and paint has long been an invisible problem in playground soils in New Orleans and other American cities, Mielke said. Lead has been federally banned from gasoline since 1996 but remains distributed in city soils, he noted. In a study released in April, Mielke and other researchers at Tulane and Colorado State University found that many sections of New Orleans had lower levels of lead than they did prior to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, however. After those 2005 hurricanes, soil lead levels dropped in 29 of 46 census tracts studied in New Orleans because land was covered with sediment carried in by flood water.

Mielke said "lead contamination might reappear with time. But the important point is that declines in soil-lead levels correlated with reductions in blood-lead levels in children." Median blood-lead levels in the city's kids fell 33% from pre-to-post Katrina surveillance data. And the lowest blood-lead levels among children were found in those born after the 2005 hurricanes. "These results support a proactive program for soil remediation," Mielke said.

Mielke said rubber mats are used in many of the city's playgrounds now to prevent kids from contacting soil. City children are still exposed to potentially damaging levels of arsenic and lead, however. Arsenic in CCA-treated wood and arsenic leaching into soils remain serious threats, as does lead in soil, he said.

Digby Playground on Virgilian Street in East New Orleans is preparing for improvements that neighbors have requested from the city for years. Peggy Givens, Digby Booster Club president and girls' athletic coordinator, said community associations from Pines Village, Rosedale, and Melia paid for playground soil sampling this summer, testing for arsenic and lead. "Sampling was required for our application to KaBOOM!, which will build a new playground" in late September, she said. The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation will fund the project.

And Mayor Landrieu announced last month that Digby Playground has been allocated between $34,000 and $43,000 for improvements. Digby, home to baseball, football and basketball teams, lost amenities and many of its trees to Katrina.

In addition to Digby, other playgrounds and ball fields on Mayor Landrieu's "100 Projects For A New, New Orleans" include Behrman Park, Comiskey Park and Playground, Di Benedetto Playground, Hunter's Field, Joe Brown Park, Kingswood Playground, Norwood Thompson Playground, Oliver Bush Playground, Sam Bonart Playground, St. Roch Park and Wisner Playground.

Cyndi Nguyen, executive director of VIET or Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training, said all city neighborhoods are in need, but she is disappointed that the major playspot in her community, Village De L'est Playground, is not on the mayor's list for improvements. She cites physical rather than toxic dangers there, saying "it's got so many holes in the ground and so much overgrown grass that kids and families use it at their own risk. We had a soccer team but the holes made it too dangerous to run, and we worried about injuries." She added "you have to drive to get to a decent park from here."

Nguyen continued, "no work's been done on Village De L'est since Katrina even though our community was the first to come back to the city after the storm." She would like to see more kids using the park and interacting with neighbors, instead of sitting at home snacking and staring at a computer. Nguyen said she plans to "reach out to the Mayor's office soon about conditions at Village De L'est."

One by one, city playgrounds are improving, but more can be done to reduce toxicity and other threats, according to experts. Mielke said,

"soil in playgrounds should be systematically remediated, and that's possible by using sediments carried by the Mississippi River, which are available from spillways and areas outside the city. River sediments are extraordinarily clean compared to soils in the metro area."

Tulane-Xavier environmental researchers support the launch of a New Orleans project like Norway's National Clean Soil Program for mapping and addressing polluted soils in playgrounds and outdoor areas at elementary schools and childcare centers.

This article was previously published in the Sept. 13, 2010 edition of The Louisiana Weekly.