White House Playground Covered With Harmful Mulch, Says Environmental Group

  • Published on April 7th, 2009

The Obamas may have planted a fresh and healthy garden on the White House lawn, but their playground for the kids is anything but healthy, according to an environmental-health group.

Environment and Human Health contends that the used-tire mulch covering the playground causes skin and eye irritation and destroys mucus membranes, reports the Seattle Times. The group cites a review done by Sinai Hospital in New York in March that reported that playgrounds made from used tired tend to get very hot and can cause kids to get skin infections and inhale toxins and carcinogens.

A spokesperson for Michelle Obama, however, said they just followed recommendations from the National Recreation and Park Association, which in turn followed those from the International Play Equipment Manufacturer’s Association, which listened to the Rubber Manufacturer’s Association. The president of the latter “pointed to a series of studies in the U.S. and in Europe — which has reused scrap tires for much longer than the United States has — that show tires are safe,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

When I tried to do a simple Google search on used-tired mulch, I got conflicting results. The first site told me that it is “The Perfect Rubber Mulch for Playgrounds, Landscapes, and Equestrian.” The second site says it’s “deadly.” The rest of the results continue in much the same pattern. It’s either the miracle or murderous mulch, and not much in between.

>>See also: 7 Ways to Kick Back at the White House

Should the Obamas be trusting something as seemingly contradictory as this for their young children? Cities have been using this mulch in parks for more than a decade now: Chicago carted in 30 tons of rubber mulch in the fall of 1998 to decorate its natural areas. The reasons for using the mulch are that it is heavier than wood chips, so it’s less likely to blow away, and it is, of course, made from recycled tires.

Unless children are rolling around in the stuff every day (then again, they might be), I don’t see much wrong with them merely running on the ground. The Obamas seem to agree.

Photo Credit: The White House playground, Rubber Mulch at Flickr under a Creative Commons License

About the Author

My name is Amanda, and I'm a recent grad from Michigan State University. At MSU I was involved in the environmental journalism program and have written for the school's environmental journal and E, The Environmental Magazine. I'm delving into freelancing now, and will spend the summer in NYC as an intern at NYC Parks and Recreation.
  • We have seen many changes in the tire recycling and rubber recycling world. It is important that we continue to do things here in the US to keep our tires from ending up in landfills where they collect water and disease. We are seeing a turning point in the economy and people are starting to use tire rubber for many applications. This rubber at the white house is just one example. There are so many more possibilities.

    We are working hard to stop tire fires and save our environment. If you have any ideas please reply to this message.

  • It happens to be that Rubberecycle is the company that placed mulch and rubber curbs at the White House playground as you will see at image http://www.flickr.com/photos/rubberecycle/3409604… or look at article from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rubberecycle or http://www.rubberecycle.com/news.asp

  • We got our rubber mulch from a company web site http://www.rubbermulch.com/ after the fact that we found the CPSC recommending this products http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/325.pdf page #9 and #10 pdf file playground safety booklet, and found that. The products made from recycled tires have been shown to be safe for kids and playgrounds. There have been more than a hundred studies over nearly two decades. It's recommended by the EPA and Consumer Reports has given it two thumbs up. It's safer than wood mulch, gravel and sand products," says Sacks.

    He went on to say that besides the green aspect, playground safety is a focus: "Playsafer passed the egg test. That is, we dropped an egg from the top of a 14 ft. playground. It landed on our 6-inch cushion of Playsafer mulch, bounced, but did not break," said Sacks.

    WOW see this Line:

    Conforms to all CPSC, ASTM, and IPEMA (The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association) safety guidelines and is ADA approved. The pioneer in the tire recycling industry, RubbeRecycle utilizes the most advanced technology and equipment to recycle tires on site.

    The first family did a great move. Please keep our kids safe.

    I would like to know if the person writing against the first family playground.

    #1 is that to attack Pres. Obama?

    #2 did their kids ever play in a playground?

    #3 do they have kids?

    Protection in playgrounds are a must. It is safe read Detroit Testing Lab http://www.rubberecycle.com/F1951-99.pdf and http://www.rubberecycle.com/F1292-99.pdf it is safe and great for playgrounds.

    Thanks Moshe

  • Wow that's really interesting. Well I have Rubber Mulch in my yard! My kids love it. Actually they don't cry every time they fall! I think that it's a great product. I bought mine from rubberecycle.com and I first did alot of research to make sure it's safe for my children. So far My kids never got burnt or sick! I think just because someone came up with a new idea, and might be taking away some of wood mulch is business it doesn't call for reasons to find something bad!!

  • As you see the white house playground did add rubber mulch from rubberecycle mulch based on the EPA recommendations, that it is safe and great for playground safety see http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/325.pdf page #9 and #10 booklet.

  • We found your article particularly interesting since we are the company that sells the “Rubber Mulch” that you mention in your article. Rubber mulch has been heavily scrutinized with stringent private and government testing and has proven to be a safe, 100% recycled alternative to bark mulches that decompose over time and compact. Please see the studies outlined below on rubber mulch safety and its toxicity. We hope the studies done by Mayo Clinic and Consumer Product Safety Council will lend some credibility to dispel the unsubstantiated, invalidated by any studies, nonsense out there about rubber mulch.

    Read about Rubberecycle rubber mulch Detroit Testing Lab http://www.rubberecycle.com/F1951-99.pdf and http://www.rubberecycle.com/F1292-99.pdf it is safe and great for playgrounds.

  • My family pioneered tire shredders and tire recycling in the early 1970's and a billion dollar field has evolved around recycling of tires…

    Lets get real and stop making statements about the safety of rubber…we live in a world of various materials and rubber being one of them…

    Can we find the truth about rubber and get on with it…and stop speculating…

    I think that there are always those who will claim that clean air is safe and some that will say it is dangerous…

    I just want to know for sure…are tires safe…is anything made from rubber safe…including fuel chips and rubber granules and crum…

    I myself want to know…is it safe or is it not safe…

    But here is the truth…rubber is a highly recycled product and the world will eventually turn this into a totaly recycled product for tires …until they are replaced with a plastic and rubber design…

    For now it will be business as usual and the rubber from tires will be recycled and as far as I have read…its safe…

    But if I am wrong lets get the facts from reliable sources…

    dan burda


    inventor of tire shredding equipment


    Aside from the toxicity issues which may or may not be a legitimate health concern regarding recyled tire use in play/sport surfaces, there is also a heat retention and balance issue. I recently walked on chunked rubber mulch that was around 4" deep and found it disturbing and harder to balance on. Let's not go recycle crazy if the application does not improve or at least equal the current state of the art. For me, I can't see to many ways to improve upon steel and wood playgrounds with natural mulch footing. Rubber crumbs in artificial sport fields are a different situation. Maybe the best use of rubber tire mulch would be for large scale areas requiring weed suppression. Does anyone know what the greatest use to date is of recycled tire material?

    Joe Liptow – LEED AP

  • Roger Wilson

    Ever watched the news and noticed the huge black cloud and the toxic run off from a rubber tire fire. After all, tires are made with petroleum. These fires are very resistant to the efforts of fire fighters and now that we are talking heat, the temperature from direct sunlight can raise the

    surface temperature of this product to well over safe levels. This can easily cause severe burns to the human anatomy.

    The expense of this rubber product is over the top and beyond the reach of most homeowners and neighborhoods. Compare to wood chips. You can get the chips free. The tree companies have to pay to landfill their chip waste. The tree companies will deliver and place the product at your direction. After a few years of outdoor seasoning, you dig it up and spread the composted mulch around your yard and trees or neighborhood to improve the soil quality. Give it to others. Now, it is time to begin the process once again.

    Yep, thats it call the tree company for free wood chips. GREEN, GREEN, GREEN! Now thats really recycling at its very best. Lets all do our little

    bit to help our earth

    Your friend


  • Patricia Taylor

    I would not characterize the doctors, public health professionals, and policy experts who compose Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) as “internet experts.”

    Nancy Alderman, President of EHHI, recently wrote this: “Recycling is good – but there are certain things that should not be recycled. We should not recycle asbestos, we should not recycle lead and we should not recycle rubber tires, certainly not where children play.”

    In addition, Dr. Philip Landrigan is eminently well-qualified to comment upon the hazard of products made from recycled rubber tires.

    Remember that crumb rubber, like chunk rubber and rubber mulch, is made from shredded, ground, or pulverized recycled rubber tires and rubber dust.

    Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., M.Sc., the Ethel Wise Professor and Chair of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, is a pediatrician, epidemiologist, and internationally recognized leader in public health and preventive medicine. He has been a member of the faculty of Mount Sinai School of Medicine since 1985 and Chair of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine since 1990. Dr. Landrigan is also the Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center.

    Dr. Landrigan recently wrote this: “Crumb rubber, a major component of current generation synthetic turf fields, is typically made from ground-up recycled tires containing styrene and 1, 3-butadiene, the major constituents of synthetic rubber. Styrene is toxic to the nervous system, and butadiene is a proven human carcinogen.”

    William Crain is no wingnut. Crain is a professor of psychology at The City College of New York. Dr. Crain and Dr. Jim Zhang, an associate dean and professor of environmental and occupational health at the UMDNJ-School of Public Health, co-authored a recent UMDNJ study that “finds that when children or athletes ingest the tiny rubber granules in synthetic turf, it is likely that a significant portion of the lead in the granules will be absorbed by their bodies’ gastric fluids.” (See http://www.newswise.com/articles/view/544449/)

    From the same article:

    “The UMDNJ study included just one ‘new generation’ artificial fiber. While the sample had a relatively low level of lead, the absorption fractions into synthetic gastric and intestinal fluids were still high (34.6 and 54.0 percent, respectively).

    William Crain, a co-author on the study and a child psychologist at The City College of New York, said the findings are especially worrisome with respect to young children who might pick up granules and ingest them. The granules can also be transported to homes in the shoes of field users, making the granules accessible to young children. ‘Whenever young children are involved, we need to particularly careful, because they are most vulnerable to toxic chemicals,’ Crain adds.

    The study also included an analysis of the rubber granules in seven park samples for the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The researchers found that five of the seven samples contained at least two PAHs that exceeded New York State Department of Environmental Conservation safety limits for contaminated soil. The PAHs that were found are possible, probable, or known human carcinogens as defined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The investigators found that the PAHs seemed not to be absorbed into the digestive tract, which should help direct researchers to other potential PAH exposure routes, such as inhalation or skin contact.

    The investigators also noted high levels of zinc in rubber granules. High zinc levels present a special danger to non-human species in the environment.” (End of quote.)

    The other exposure routes, “such as inhalation or skin contact,” are routes that would carry PAHs into the lungs and onto the skin of toddlers and children who play on playgrounds and artificial fields every day as part of their regular school day, during recess or gym class, as well as for team sports.

    Finally, the Attorney General of Connecticut is no extremist. Neither is CT Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro. In a joint press release from April 28, 2008, DeLauro and Blumenthal called on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate the potential health and environmental impact of synthetic turf fields. The EPA agreed to an investigation.

    The DeLauro/Blumenthal press release states this: “Synthetic turf – commonly used on athletic fields, as well as for children’s play areas – can be made of ground, or crumb, rubber from recycled tires. The fields are also made of nylon or polyethylene, which is dyed green to create the artificial grass. In addition to health concerns over the use of lead in the dye, are the possible effects of carcinogens released into the air from the crumb.”

    The press release ends with this statement DeLauro and Blumenthal: “The federal government should investigate credible claims about toxic chemicals to confront environmental and public health dangers. Schools across the state are replacing grass fields with artificial turf made from recycled ground rubber tires. Preliminary tests point to possible troubling health risks, including significant lead levels and carcinogens. The federal government needs to tread on this turf — to investigate potential threats, including risks of contaminated runoff into rivers and water supplies.”

    While the industry engages in doubt promotion and character assassination, even as scientists and government officials call for investigation, children are playing on rubber mulch and crumb rubber every day. The proof of harm will be borne in their bodies.

    We need to take better care of ourselves, each other, and especially our children; whose smaller, still developing bodies cannot tolerate contamination without consequence.

  • Perfect Rubber Mulch Replies To The Rubber Mulch Safety Issue

    We found your article particularly interesting since we are the company that sells the “Perfect Rubber Mulch” that you mention in your article. Rubber mulch has been heavily scrutinized with stringent private and government testing and has proven to be a safe, 100% recycled alternative to bark mulches that decompose over time and compact. Please see the studies outlined below on rubber mulch safety and its toxicity. We hope the studies done by Mayo Clinic and Consumer Product Safety Council will lend some credibility to dispel the unsubstantiated, invalidated by any studies, nonsense out there about rubber mulch.

    We too have run across the few “internet experts” taking shots at the safe use of rubber mulch and are well aware that they are making blanket, false statements with no test results to prove anything they say on rubber mulch and how harmful it may be. It is slanderous and will be addressed through the proper channels, not on their personal YouTube sites and other fly by night internet quacks that spew their reckless slander. If left up to the thinking of these so called “internet experts” every bit of land butting up to any highway or byway in the USA would be an EPA nightmare from the tires losing tread daily, year after year. People need to research and use common sense in their search for the “Perfect Rubber Mulch” for their playgrounds. The data and research outlined below is a good start. Read for yourself these studies before believing and printing articles that bring into question the safety of rubber mulch. We sell millions of pounds of safety rubber mulch to schools, daycares and yes, even the US government for training pits for hand- to- hand combat. Rubber mulch is being mandated in many areas as the SAFEST alternative under play equipment for our children. Rubber mulch may not be for everyone as it is expensive compared to bark mulches, but not because of safety issues. Obviously the Obama’s have done their homework and found rubber mulch a perfect rubber mulch to create a safe play environment for their children at their new home in the White House as have thousands of schools, daycares and homeowners . Below are the FACTS that can be substantiated about rubber mulch.
    Thank you for the opportunity to respond to your article.

    Julie Cole-Owner
    PRM Enterprises LLC
    Perfect Rubber Mulch

    This article is a excerpt from the “Handbook for Public Playground Safety”, Pub. No. 325
    U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, DC 20207.
    Another source for information is the Consumer Product Safety Commission at this link:


    Rubber mulch is considered non-toxic. MSDS Sheets for key components available upon request. Based on Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) conducted on scrap tire chips (method 1311 of USEPA), the following trace metal elements were determined to be significantly lower than regulatory threshold limits: Arsenic (As), Cadmium (Cd), Chromium (Cr), Lead (Lb), Selenium (Sc), and Silver (Ag). Source: Criteria of Selecting Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) and Synthetic Precipitation Leaching Procedure (SPLP) Tests to Characterize Special Wastes, Dr. Chih-Shin Shieh, Florida Institute of Technology, June 30, 2001 .Oral ingestion is deemed to be low in overall hazard because ingestion of tire crumb on the ground is not likely, and the gastrointestinal tract is unlikely to be efficient in extracting toxic chemicals from tire crumb. Tire crumb does not contain chemicals with high vapor pressures; thus, exposure via inhalation is deemed inconsequential and the resulting hazard negligible. Dermal exposure is deemed to be unlikely and therefore to present low overall hazard. A carrier solvent more efficient than water would be needed to extract toxic chemicals from tire crumb in quantity, and a suitable non-polar vehicle would be required to penetrate protective skin layers for significant absorption. This was deemed implausible in a playground situation. Cancer hazard as measured by relevant in vitro predictive assays, was deemed negative. Ingestion of small amounts of tire crumb by small children will not result in an unacceptable hazard of contracting cancer. Source: Toxicological Evaluation for the Hazard Assessment of Tire Crumb for Use in Public Playgrounds, Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 2003.In 1994 the Maryland Environmental Services (MES) sent 3/4 inch pieces of tire chips to a testing laboratory to be tested with hydrochloric acid (stomach acid). “Visual examination of insoluble residue appeared to indicate only fibrous reinforcing strands were dissolved by the hydrochloric acid. The tire rubber did not appear to be affected in any way; i.e. chalking, cracking, spauling, fracturing, etc.” (PSI report No. 486-40013-001). Therefore, if a piece of rubber is swallowed, it should not cause any acute or chronic problems. Short-term issues, such as an upset stomach will be a function of the amount of rubber swallowed. As to the fate of the rubber chips swallowed, they are eventually evacuated from the body, just like any other non-digestible material. Source: RubberManufacturers Association http://www.rma.org/scrap_tires/scrap_tire_markets/playgrounduse.cfm

    D. Leaching:A number of studies have been done to determine the potential for leaching from recycled scrap tires and recycled tire products. Increased levels of zinc and iron were found in soil tilled with raw crumb rubber particles (1/4” and less) when tested annually for 4 years. The amounts detected were below levels of concern and posed no hazards to water quality. Additionally no toxicity to turf grass was observed in these studies. Source: Top Dressing with Crumb Rubber on Athletic Fields, Dr. J.N. Rogers, III and J.T. Vanini, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, Michigan State University , 1994.Zinc that had leached from scrap tires was determined not to pose any potential harm to the environment. Source: Identification of Tire Leachate Toxicants and A Risk Assessment of Water Quality Effects Using Tire Reefs in Canals, Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 578-581, Environmental Canada, 1994.Some volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds were identified in scrap tire leachates using the TCLP test. Reported levels are far below regulatory limits:

    Reported Value ug/L Regulatory Limit ug/L

    Carbon disulfide 67 14,400

    Methyl ethyl ketone 21 7,200

    Toluene 190 14,000

    Phenol 46 14,400

    Source: A Report on the Use of Shredded Scrap Tires in On-Site Sewage Disposal Systems, Department of Environmental Conservation, State of Vermont, Brattleboro, VT, Envirologic, Inc. 1990.Chemicals leaching from relative fresh tire crumb may present a moderate toxic threat to aquatic species if the runoff is not diluted. However, this toxic activity is quickly degraded by natural processes, presumably by conversion of the chemicals responsible to nontoxic products. Conditions likely to produce runoff, such as rain and snowmelt, are also likely to dilute the runoff in receiving sewers, bodies of water, and groundwater by considerable volumes. Given that undiluted runoff is not likely and that 3 months is an outside estimate of the duration of toxicity, it is doubtful that tire crumb would present a significant risk of contamination in receiving surface waters or groundwater. Source: Toxicological Evaluation for the Hazard Assessment of Tire Crumb for Use in Public Playgrounds, Journal of the Air & Waste ManagementAssociation, 2003.