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High levels of toxic paint in playgrounds put children at risk

Councils are being warned to monitor playground equipment more regularly after environmental scientists discovered lead content up to 40 times greater than recommended across 50 playgrounds in southern England.

Scientists from Plymouth University analysed the metallic content of paints on equipment in the playgrounds, some of which were less than a decade old. As well as high concentrations of lead, the paint had higher than expected levels of chromium, antimony and cadmium.

The highest concentrations of these toxins generally occurred in yellow or red paints, but the visible conditions of surfaces was not a good indicator of the concentrations of hazardous elements, with some playgrounds having only been built in 2009.

Dr Andrew Turner, reader in environmental science at the university, and research lead, explained: “While undisturbed and intact, coatings and their chemical components are relatively safe. 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 mobilised 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 research, published in the Science of the Total Environment journal, suggested the existing levels of toxins could pose a significant potential risk to young children and public health as a whole.

As well as monitoring surfaces more regularly (particularly for flaking and cracking paint), the scientists recommended carefully removing paint in poor condition, with structures stabilised and repainted with lead-free paint.

Stricter controls should also be applied to domestic and imported paints used in playgrounds or equipment that is pre-painted before installation, they said.

Guidelines adopted in the UK and other countries recommended new paint is lead-free or contains less than 2,500 parts per million of lead, but this study showed that levels of up to 152,000 parts per million of lead were detected in railings, support, handles and gates.

Turner added: “Given that the total tolerable daily intake of lead for a child under six years of age is 6 microgrammes, the results of this study suggest that very little ingestion is required to present a potential health hazard. And while our tests have focused on the south of England, there is no reason to suggest its results would not be replicated across the UK and further afield.

“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. 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.”

An LGA spokesman commented: “Playgrounds are an important feature in children’s lives and councils are doing everything they can to keep playgrounds in the best possible condition. However, councils have had to contend with significant reductions to their budgets.

“We urge parents to report any issues that they might spot.”


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