Almost every Montgomery County playground has a shredded wood chips surface, partly because the natural product is less expensive than recycled rubber tire, which also is used at playgrounds and parks.
But, said Kathy Dearstine, Montgomery Parks project coordinator for playground renovations, both recycled rubber and wood chips have drawbacks, and she would prefer using a combination of both products at each playground. Ideally, she said, wood chips would cover most of a playground, and recycled rubber would be used where flooding may occur or where wheelchairs and strollers are pushed. The recycled rubber can be used to make hills and slopes, she said.
Of the County’s 275 playgrounds, 252 have floorings made of engineered wood fiber, which Dearstine described as “a wood chip that has been shredded a few times.”
Six percent of County playgrounds are covered with a rubber product made from recycled tires.
The remaining 2 percent use both products. Those playgrounds are generally covered with wood chips but the rubber product is used at approaches to and the ends of the slides and other equipment for wheelchairs and strollers use, she said.
The newly refurbished Kemp Mill Urban Playground in Silver Spring, which reopened last month after being under construction for about 14 months, has a black, recycled rubber surface.
As a July 26 Kemp Mill Civic Association meeting, Kathleen Michels, who has researched the effects of playground surfaces, told the attendees about what she considered the dangers of a rubber surface.
Playground surfaces made from recycled tires include toxic chemicals, reach temperatures hot enough to burn a child and don’t always pass a head impact safety standard, according to Michels.
But Michael Riley, parks department director, disagreed, and told the audience, “Your playground is safe.”
The County considers the safety of children “paramount,” and if the newly-installed surface was hazardous, “We would tear it out tomorrow,” he said about the park on Arcola Avenue by the Kemp Mill shopping center.
Dearstine agreed, noting that federal studies on the two materials have been done “for the last 40 years. They haven’t come up with anything that would preclude using it,” she said, referring to the recycled rubber product.
She agreed that the rubber can get very hot, especially during a very hot Maryland day, but said when her department conducted temperature studies, the slides, poles and other equipment recorded higher temperatures than the rubber.
“We did heat readings there of the entire playground,” she said. “The equipment was actually hotter than the surface was.”
Dearstine also noted that rubber product usually has to be replaced more often and only comes with a five-year warranty, while wood chips last longer, although there is more upkeep involved, including raking, she said.
Another deterrent in using rubber is that it is more expensive, she said. Engineered wood fiber costs approximately eight to 10 dollars a square foot while rubber is $25 a square foot, including the cost of the concrete slab underneath, Dearstine said.
“With our limited resources, it’s a better product,” she said of the wood chips.
There are no federal or state requirements for playground surfaces, according to Dearstine, who said, “at this point, no one is taking a firm stand on this.”