District backs off plans for crumb rubber at Janney Elementary field

Janney Elementary School has a variety of outdoor recreation spaces. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

Amid debate about the health effects of crumb rubber — a synthetic surface used at playgrounds and fields across the U.S. — the District has backed off plans to install the material at Janney Elementary School this month.

The D.C. Council adopted a moratorium on crumb rubber in the fiscal year 2018 budget, which takes effect Oct. 1. However, D.C. Public Schools initially planned to use the synthetic infill at a new Janney field this month before the law could go into effect.

“Saving on time or cost are no excuse for choosing a material that may put our children’s health at risk,” Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh wrote in an Aug. 21 letter. Officials opted to use an alternative substance — a sand product called envirofill.

“They concluded that it’s safe,” Cheh said of the sand material. “In fact, it has one advantage. … It’ll be a cooler surface.”

“I don’t mean that in a cultural way,” the council member added.

While Cheh conceded that the subject of crumb rubber requires further scientific research, she said that preliminary studies raise safety concerns.

The District’s crumb rubber moratorium follows a series of temporary bans on the material in several U.S. counties and cities — notably New York City in 2008, Los Angeles in 2009 and Montgomery County, Md., in 2015. Cheh has advocated for a crumb rubber moratorium for several years. In a 2013 letter, Cheh asked the D.C. Department of General Services’ then-director Brian Hanlon to avoid the material because safety and environment impacts were “far from settled.”

On the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a study on crumb rubber in February 2016, and a multi-agency team is working on a timeline for the review.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, is convinced that crumb rubber should be avoided. Zuckerman told the The Current that the material has both confirmed and suspected hazards — for example, it absorbs heat more quickly than natural surfaces, and can reach temperatures of 145 degrees. Additionally, Zuckerman said, synthetic turf is more compact than it feels, which gives children a false sense of security and can result in injury.

Overall, in Zuckerman’s view, grass and dirt are the best surfaces for children and for the environment. “That’s what I used to play on,” she said. However, some disagree since grass is not durable, is more expensive to maintain, and takes longer to dry than synthetic surfaces.

The crumb rubber debate comes as numerous D.C. parks and school playgrounds were shuttered after failing a shock absorption test. None of the city agencies responsible for the play areas responded to requests for more information either from Cheh or from The Current.

No list of affected facilities has been made public, though Cheh’s office determined that it included some outdoor areas at several Ward 3 schools: Janney, Eaton and Mann elementaries and Wilson High.