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Assessing Scientific Data to Create Safer Playgrounds And Community Environments

La Crosse, Wisconsin

Featured image for the project, Assessing Scientific Data to Create Safer Playgrounds And Community Environments

Image by erge from Pixabay

There are concerns about the environmental and health impacts of rubber chips, pour-in-place materials, and artificial grass used at school athletic facilities and playgrounds in the City of La Crosse, Wisconsin. While other locations in the US and EU banned these recycled materials over safety concerns, the science on these materials is relatively new. Our objective is to understand the evidence on the impacts these materials can have on children’s health and the environment. We hope that this information can be used by La Crosse schools and other communities when considering the use of recycled rubber products for new outdoor community spaces or updating existing ones.


About the Community

This work is currently centered on play areas and spaces within the city of La Crosse, Wisconsin, with the hope that the created tool will be helpful to many communities. This work impacts the community as a whole since most people use the public spaces that contain rubber products. It is most impactful to the children using playspaces daily at their schools.

A grassroots group formed in 2020 to represent and take on this project when it was noticed that other nearby communities were banning the use of rubber chips. Parents, community members and a local University of Wisconsin – La Crosse environmental student started talking about whether that was needed in our community. The group wanted to gather research to determine if changes should be made. After reviewing and researching the literature, the group wrote a letter to a childcare agency, the city park department, and the School District of La Crosse asking for the removal of rubber chips and their  replacement with wood chips. Although there were some actions taken, most rubber chips still remain.

Our goal is to create a decision tool focused on the safety of rubber products that will be used by decision makers who are creating new spaces or updating existing ones. With Thriving Earth Exchange, we plan to bring a heightened level of community awareness to this issue and increase the use of science in decision making around community space planning especially in regards to potential toxic materials coming into contact with children.

About the Project

The traditional groundcover for athletic fields and playgrounds has been natural grass fields and wood mulch; however, more recently these materials are being replaced by artificial surfaces. These newer materials are touted to have advantages over natural surfaces including lower maintenance, safer if a child falls, and a sustainable solution being made out of recycled tires. However, tires–the main component of the rubber mulch and pour-in-place mats commonly used–have a host of potentially toxic materials.

We want to understand the potential chemical hazards of recycled rubber materials used in playgrounds. To do this, we plan to compile a report on what is known about the safety of these materials including the potential health effects. We also plan to quantify the exposure of children who come into contact with these artificial surfaces. There are three main pathways that children may be exposed to the chemicals from the recycled playground materials: (1) volatile organic compounds that can be inhaled and are associated with headaches and feeling light headed; (2) materials break down and particles end up on clothes, hair, and the ears, which may eventually be ingested or absorbed through the skin; and (3) direct contact with the skin and ingestion via hand to mouth route.

We want to develop a simple sampling protocol that can be used by parents, children, and teachers to collect byproducts of the rubber playground ground cover, which can also be used by other communities to quantify exposure. We also hope to test these samples to measure the levels of toxic chemicals. The overall goal is to compile what is known about the impacts of these materials–including the results of our study–on children’s health and the environment to provide the city of La Crosse school district with information to make science-based decisions concerning choices for new playground materials or updating existing playgrounds.

Timeline and Milestones

Dates                                                   Milestone

May – July 2022                                  Project Scoping

August – September                            Find a scientist

October – November                           Develop sampling protocol; protocol testing

December – April 2023                        Outreach and volunteer recruitment; no winter sampling

May 2023 – August 2023                    Sampling and chemical analyses

August – September 2023                  Writing report; community outreach


Project Team

Community Leads

Cathy Van Maren is a retired resident with a keen interest in environmental protection. She serves on the City of La Crosse Climate Action Plan Steering Committee and on the Municipal Transit Utility board. She is an officer with the Coulee Region Sierra Club and volunteers with state and regional environmental campaigns. She worked for nearly 30 years for the Upward Bound program at UW-La Crosse and is a co-founder of a community Waldorf school.

Jamie O’Neill is a STEM (Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Mathematics) Event Planner and Outreach Coordinator at Viterbo University. Her involvement in projects has centered around science, health, education and the environment. She has been a part of creating spaces such as food forests, school gardens and natural learning areas and brings data collection and funding expertise. Going forward, she focuses on bringing evidence and science-based research to decision making and planning processes.

Community Scientist

Kristofer Rolfhus BS Biology, Univ. Wisconsin-La Crosse 1991; PhD Oceanography, Univ. Connecticut 1997, research was on mercury cycling in the Atlantic Ocean; Postdoc, Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison 2001, research was on how flooding affects mercury in food webs; Current: Professor, Dept. of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Univ. Wisconsin-La Crosse since 2001; Courses taught: General Chem, Analytical Chem, Environmental Chem; Current projects: Mercury contamination in food webs of the western Great Lakes region, mercury and the fur trade


Community Science Fellow

Brendan Turley Headshot

Brendan Turley is an assistant scientist at the Cooperative Institute of Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami. His work is primarily engaged with understanding water quality issues, how they relate to harmful algal blooms, and their effects on important fish populations. One of the projects he is working on is a collaborative water quality monitoring project with commercial fishermen in Southwest Florida. Due to the pandemic, he has been working remotely in Wisconsin.