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Study: Lead Levels High on Playgrounds

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

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Researchers in the UK have found the presence of hazardous amounts of lead paint on public playground equipment across Southern England and warn the issue may be more widespread.

The study detected equipment with lead content up to 40 times greater than the recommended concentrations, along with higher than expected levels of cadmium, chromium and antimony, according to an announcement on the research.

Lead has been linked to neurological problems in children, among other health issues.

©iStock.com / Manley099

The scientists from Plymouth University found lead levels of up to 152,000 parts per million on railings, supports, handles and gates on playgrounds throughout Southern England. They have called for more monitoring of these surfaces.

The team studied paints used on the playground equipment located at almost 50 playgrounds. Some of the areas analyzed were less than a decade old.

Led by Plymouth University environmental scientists, the study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Study Details

“While undisturbed and intact, coatings and their chemical components are relatively safe,” said Dr. Andrew Turner, who led the research.

“But once the film begins to deteriorate through abrasion or via exposure to UV light and moisture, the paint begins to crack, flake and chalk and metal-bearing particulates are mobilized into the environment.

“The effects of lead on human health, including those that impact on the neurological development of children, are well-documented with regard to paint exposure in urban and domestic settings.”

The university’s announcement noted the team found lead concentrations in excess of historical standards. A 1977 EC Directive required that all paints containing more than 5,000 parts per million of lead should be labelled with a warning that they must not be applied to substrates likely to be chewed or sucked on by children, the report said.

Later guidelines adopted in the UK and other countries have recommended new paint be lead-free or contain less than 2,500 parts per million, the report noted.

©iStock.com / Maria_08

The highest concentration of lead was found in red- or yellow-painted equipment, the researchers reported.

Still, the researchers found lead levels of up to 152,000 parts per million on railings, supports, handles and gates on the playgrounds, with the highest concentrations showing in red or yellow painted equipment, the university reported.

The team used a field-portable X-ray fluorescence (FP-XRF) spectrometer to test the painted surfaces and analyzed paint flake samples in the lab.

The visual appearance of the painted structure was not a good indicator of the concentration of hazardous elements, as some of the equipment was “newer,” constructed in 2009, Turner said in a statement.

Addressing the Issue

“Given that the total tolerable daily intake of lead for a child under six years of age is 6 micrograms, the results of this study suggest that very little ingestion is required to present a potential health hazard,” said Turner.

He also suggested that similar lead levels would be found in playgrounds across the UK and further.

“It is difficult to attribute poisoning directly to paint on playground equipment because the effects of lead are cumulative and children may be exposed to a multitude of sources of lead in domestic and urban settings,” the researcher noted. “But previous studies around elevated lead in blood levels and the ingestion of paint chips have strongly suggested that paint is the source of intoxication.”

According to the university’s announcement, the researchers made the following list of recommendations that public officials should consider in light of the findings.

  • Surfaces should be monitored regularly for condition and, in particular, for flaking and cracking paint;
  • Paint in poor condition should be carefully removed and structures stabilized and repainted with lead-free paint, or equipment replaced;
  • Parents should be made aware of the dangers of children sucking or biting painted surfaces or ingesting paint chips;
  • Stricter controls should be applied to domestic and imported paints used for playgrounds, and for equipment that is pre-painted before installation.


Tagged categories: Coating chemistry; Equipment manufacturers; Health and safety; Lead; Metal coatings; Research

Comment from M. Halliwell, (1/27/2016, 11:04 AM)

I find it interesting that Canada's Surface Coating Regulation draws the line at 90 mg/kg (ppm) (formerly 5,000 mg/kg). I'd also wonder if it is solely the paint or if the primers and other underlying coatings also come into play...especially with so many pieces brought in just primed from Asia and then painted the required color on arrival. Prime example (sorry for the pun): I've found steel railings that don't meet the guidelines and door frames that do, painted with the same paints... The difference was the underlying primer.

Comment from Catherine Brooks of Eco-Strip, (1/29/2016, 4:48 PM)

Playground equipments' recent paint with lead is shocking to me. I know some playgrounds in the USA have found lead dust in their dirt, too. The spread and breadth of the lead poisoning issue in the UK is disquieting.

Comment from john freed, (2/2/2016, 3:27 PM)

very informative article

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/8/2016, 8:58 AM)

It is utterly ridiculous to have that amount of lead in modern playground equipment.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (2/8/2016, 8:58 AM)

It is utterly ridiculous to have that amount of lead in modern playground equipment.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (2/9/2016, 10:49 AM)

With the assortment of heavy metals involved, I'm thinking the equipment pieces were made and primed in China or India, shipped over and then given the final color coat here. It's sad, but not surprising, considering how many cheap toys have unacceptable lead (and other heavy metals) levels that are manufactured in the same locations. In cycling, they say it's a balance: cheap, light, strong...pick two. I guess in terms of building materials it's cheap, safe and to spec, pick 2.

Comment from Jeff Laikind, (2/10/2016, 9:37 AM)

It seems to me that since the Reds and Yellows had the most lead (150,000 ppm = 15% by weight), that Chrome Yellow and Moly Orange were probably used in the top coats. The lead-in indicates that chrome was found, but not how much.

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