When Germophobia Meets Chemophobia: My daughters first trip to the park

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I remember taking my baby to the park for the first time last summer. It was a beautiful sunny day. I decided to sit on a swing with my daughter in my lap. She was cooing and babbling happily as we swung gently back and forth. It was a lovely mommy-baby moment.

Until she reached up with her precious little hand and grabbed hold of the filthy, grimey chain.

I cringed. I didn’t know whether I should immediately wipe her hands with an antibacterial hand wipe or wait until we got home to wash them. She was very likely to put them in her mouth before we made it home. If I didn’t use the wipe I would run the risk of who-knows-what-germs getting into her mouth. If I did use it however, she would be getting some not-so-safe antibacterial chemicals in her mouth.

I decided that the germs were the lesser of the two evils and waited until we got home to wash her hands with regular soap and water. I figured a few germs could be good for her immune system anyway.

Later that day I decided to google how many germs can be found in an average playground. I came across an abcNEWS report by Good Morning America that tested samples taken from 12 playgrounds in 4 major cities in the U.S. All of the playgrounds were found to have evidence of fecal flora. Some of the samples contained illness-causing germs like E.Coli. Salmonella, Hepatitis A, and norovirus among others.

Next playground visit I’ll opt for the antibacterial hand wipe. Or dress my child in a hazmat suit.

As I was researching germs and playgrounds I stumbled across another issue: developmental toxins in and around playgrounds. Weed killers and other pesticides are commonly used for lawn-keeping at parks and schools, and synthetic turf has been found to contain harmful chemicals, some of which are known carcinogens. Some playground equipment is also treated with harmful preservatives and insecticides (Environmental Working Group, 2001). A lot of newer playgrounds have flooring made of recycled rubber tires which have been found to contain PAHs, pthalates, BHT, benzothiazole as well as other hazardous chemicals (Llompart et al. 2013). The vapour phase above synthetic flooring made from rubber tires also contains these chemicals, which means not only are young children exposed to them via ingestion (hand-mouth transfer) and skin absorption, but they may also be inhaling them while playing (Llompart et al. 2013).

After reading this you may feel like avoiding playgrounds altogether, but we can’t deprive our kids of fun. Here are some rational tips for choosing which playground to take your children to:

1. Look for playground equipment that is not shaded from sunlight by trees or buildings. According to the abcNews report, UV rays kill germs.

2. Call the parks department and ask them about their cleaning schedule. Some parks clean their equipment more frequently than others.

3. Avoid playgrounds adjacent to farms or large fields where pesticides are sprayed.

4. Make sure children wash their hands after playing on playgrounds, to remove both germs and toxic chemicals.

5. Avoid playgrounds with synthetic turf

Remember that occasional exposure to these chemicals is not the end of the world. You can’t put your kids in a bubble. Do your best to keep them safe, but also let them be kids and enjoy watching them grow up instead of worrying about what’s out of your hands.

I should go take my daughter out of her hazmat suit now.

References:

1. Environmental Working Group (2001). Poisoned Playgrounds. Washington, D.C.: Sharp, R., Walker, B.

2. Llompart, M., Sanchez-Prado, L., Lamos, J.P., Garcia-Jares, C., Roca, E., Dagnac, T. (January 2013). Hazardous organic chemicals in rubber recycled tire playgrounds and pavers. Chemosphere, volume 90, issue 2, pages 423-431. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2012.07.053 .

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