Parents and administrators of a nonprofit Berkeley school are mobilizing against a play-equipment manufacturer, that allegedly failed to properly inform them about the risk of arsenic contamination of the play structure they acquired.
New School, an environmentally conscious institution offering preschool and after-school day care to approximately 80 children at 1606 Bonita Ave., bought the structure in mid-May as part of a renovation project aimed at making its playground comply with recent safety laws.
But only a few days after installing the play structure, the parents and school staff - alerted by a national report on the health risks that some wooden structures present – found out that the new toy was treated with a preservative made of chromium, copper and arsenic, commonly called CCA. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network, made public at the end of May, exposure to such chemicals can cause a number of diseases, including cancer.
“We were really shocked and dismayed to find out that it was treated with this,” said Merlyn Katechis, New School’s administrative assistant. “It took us days to find in the catalogue any mention at all of this.” Katechis said that only one line printed in the manufacturer’s catalogue mentioned that its wooden structures were pressure treated with CCA. She added that when the school called the manufacturing company, Kompan, it was told that the equipment did not present any danger as long as it was coated with a sealant.
But that was not enough to reassure the parents.
“We are outraged,” said Joanne Welch, whose 5-year-old daughter is enrolled in the school. “Even if we seal the structure, the sand naturally rubs the sealant off. We have children constantly climbing on the structure so we would constantly be worried about arsenic (exposure).”
The structure was immediately fenced off and after a series of meetings, parents and administrators decided to return the structure. The manufacturer, however refused to take it back, although it offered to help New School sell it to another institution, Katechis said.
The management of Kompan was not available for comment on Thursday.
The school community is now talking about more radical solutions. It recently uninstalled the play structure and is planning to put it on a truck and drop it off at the company’s distribution site in Forestville, Calif. Additionally, the school is working on solutions that would benefit the other institutions across the country that worry about the health risks of CCA-treated wooden playgrounds.
The school administration has contacted several environmental groups to get advice and intends to initiate legal action against Kompan on the basis of California’s Proposition 65, legislation designed to limit public exposure to possibly hazardous chemicals by mandating consumer-product warning labels.
The school may file a lawsuit independently, but it is more likely to join the effort of the Center for Environmental Health, an organization that recently filed a legal notice of its intent to sue 11 manufacturers of arsenic-treated wooden playground.
“I think we should be part of the CEH lawsuit” said Welch, one of the parents. “There are a lot of other people involved and as a small preschool we don’t have the resources (to fight against that).”