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District may lag in testing for play structure arsenic

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet staff
Saturday August 18, 2001

Despite a nationwide controversy surrounding the safety of arsenic-treated wooden play structures,the Berkeley Unified School District has not taken any steps to reassure concerned parents. 

According to a national study released by two environmental groups last May, exposure to equipment made of wood and treated with a preservative made of chromium, copper and arsenic (CCA) can lead to serious diseases, including cancer, heart problems, and diabetes. 

After the report was released, the city and at least one independent school  

took measures to make sure that the children using their playgrounds were not exposed to such hazards. The district was not as quick to react. No test has been done yet to determine whether its wooden play structures contain arsenic, and the  

issue does not seem to have been  

thoroughly discussed. 

Board of Education Director John Selawsky said that at the board’s meeting on July 5, members were told that the district’s wooden playground equipment was not treated with CCA. 

“We were informed that apparently there was no arsenic in the structures,” he said. Selawsky, however also said he had not seen any document corroborating that. 

Other school board members were not available for comment Friday. 

Gene Le Sevre, the BUSD director of plant operations, said that an October 2000 report on the district’s playground safety had not visually identified the presence of arsenic. He also acknowledged that neither the structures nor the soil had been tested in a laboratory to determine whether they were contaminated with arsenic. 

But the district, he said, will soon address the issue. The October 2000 playground safety audit, Le Sevre said, is part of a plan to refurbish play structures. The district hired a consultant to identify unsafe conditions and make recommendations based on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines for public playgrounds.  

Although it did not include laboratory tests, the audit led to the allocation of money that could be partly used for that purpose, according to Le Sevre. “We identified the problems, we got the money approved, now we have to develop a plan to implement the corrections and that’s going to happen next month,” he said. 

The budget approved for the implementation of this safety plan is $400, 000. A breakdown of the budget is not available yet, Le Sevre said. 

Superintendent Michele Barraza Lawrence could not confirm, Friday, whether part of that district money will be used for testing the structures for arsenic. 

Only half a dozen of the district’s more than 60 playgrounds are made of wood, but a number of people involved in environmental issues have expressed their determination to see all risks of exposure disappear. 

“The city sealed all the wooden structures and took samples of the soil,” said Nabil Al-Hadithy, the manager of the city’s Toxics Management Division. “I very much doubt that the BUSD has done that. It would be nice if they had at least sealed the wood in compliance with the (California Department of Health Services codes).“ 

The Community Environmental Advisory Commission, on the other hand, will soon bring to the City Council a recommendation that asks it to address, among other things, the problem of Berkeley’s non city-owned playgrounds. That includes private and public schools.