17 school playgrounds in Washington DC had elevated lead levels

Sept. 26, 2019
City says it has thoroughly cleaned the playground to make them safe for children.

At least 17 public school playgrounds in Washington, D.C., were found to contain elevated traces of lead, and six had to be shut down over the summer, according to a city-commissioned study.

The Washington Post reports that the Department of General Services says it has thoroughly cleaned the playgrounds with specialized vacuums and power washers and that they are safe for children.

“I don’t think there is reason for any panic,” said Keith A. Anderson, the agency’s director.

General Services, which maintains the playgrounds, hired an outside group to test them this summer after a parent-advocacy group earlier in the year hired a company to test the playground at Janney Elementary School in Northwest. That study, the group said, found elevated lead levels.

Investigators focused on the 79 schools with “poured-in-place” playground surfaces—a rubber surface that often consists of synthetic materials used frequently in parks and playgrounds for their bright colors and ability to pad a child’s fall.

The city has no record of a child who has tested positive for elevated lead levels as a result of contact with the playgrounds, according to Anderson.

Anderson says officials do not believe there are elevated lead levels in the core of the rubber material. Instead, he says, much of the lead contamination came from outside sources, including dust from nearby construction sites and paint chips from surrounding buildings.

As a result, the city will more frequently wash its entire playground stock. Anderson also stressed that parents should ensure that children wash their hands after using the playgrounds.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, lead in play areas cannot exceed more than 400 parts per million, though the American Academy of Pediatrics says children should not be exposed to any levels of lead. Lead exposure can cause serious damage to the brain, nervous system, kidneys and red blood cells, particularly in babies and children.

Investigators conducted four types of tests on the surface and core of the playground materials. The 17 playgrounds exceeded 400 parts per million on at least one test.

“We are being proactive, and we are taking it seriously,” Anderson says. “The bottom line is that lead exposure is a difficult legacy for most urban environments. And it is one that will continue to be a challenge as we work to remedy this newly identified source on these playgrounds.”

A coalition of parents, organized under a group called Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition, has pushed since 2017 for city officials to find alternatives to synthetic turf fields and rubber playgrounds.

Evan Yeats, a parent of two children at Thomson Elementary School — one of the six schools that had a play area closed because of elevated lead levels — says he is concerned that the city deemed the playgrounds safe while testing is ongoing. He said the city should also address the lead-contaminated debris that drifts onto playgrounds.

WTOP-TV reports that Aiton Elementary, Cardozo Education Campus, Janney Elementary, Thomas Elementary, Thomson Elementary and Turner Elementary were identified as having levels of lead that needed to be addressed and remediated.

The 17 schools were identified as having elevated levels of lead:

  • Aiton Elementary School
  • Bancroft Elementary School
  • Cardozo Education Campus
  • Dorothy I. Height Elementary School
  • Eaton Elementary School
  • H.D. Cooke Elementary School
  • Janney Elementary School
  • Langdon education campus
  • Nalle Elementary School
  • Oyster-Adams Bilingual School (Adams Campus)
  • River Terrace Education Campus
  • Roosevelt High School
  • Shepherd Elementary School
  • Thomas Elementary School
  • Thomson Elementary School
  • Truesdell Education Campus
  • Turner Elementary School.
About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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