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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

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