For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed the use of ground-up tires to cushion the surfaces of children’s playgrounds and sports fields–a decision now being reconsidered because of concerns among the agency’s own scientists about possible health threats.

The concerns are disclosed in internal agency documents about a study the EPA is conducting of air and surface samples at four fields and playgrounds that use recycled tires–the same material that cushions the ground under the Obama family’s new play set at the White House.

Recycled-rubber surfaces have been popular for decreasing playground injuries and providing resiliency and cheap, weatherproof maintenance. But doubts were raised by research suggesting potential hazards from repeated exposure to bits of shredded tire that can contain carcinogens and other chemicals, according to the documents.

The EPA scientists cited gaps in scientific evidence, despite other reviews showing little or no health concern. They urged their superiors to conduct a broad health study to inform parents and educators on kids’ safety.

Results from the agency’s limited study, which began last year, are expected within weeks.

“From everything I’ve been able to see, I’m not sure there’s an imminent hazard, but it’s something we’re investigating,” said Michael Firestone, head of children’s health protection for the EPA. “It’s critical to take a look at all the data together.”

The government has not decided if broader testing is necessary.

Communities from New Jersey to Oregon have raised concerns about children touching, swallowing, or inhaling lead, metals, and chemicals like benzene, zinc, and breathable particles from synthetic fields and play yards.

Last week, New York state officials said they found no significant health or environmental concerns in a study of leaching and breathable air above sports fields with so-called tire crumb, tiny rubber infill pellets that help anchor the synthetic grass blades. Other local studies have reached similar conclusions, examining artificial grass or tire crumb. Several have recommended additional research.

“If they really find it’s something toxic, I would be concerned,” said Alejandro Arroyo, a teacher watching his high school students from June Jordan School for Equity play soccer at San Francisco’s Crocker Amazon Park. The scent of tire rubber wafted over the busy, five-field complex as a dozen third-graders flopped onto artificial turf infused with gravel-sized, black rubber.


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