Scientists found that the paint in many playgrounds contains hazardous levels of lead, despite strict regulation laws that are supposed to limit toxic materials.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been charged with the task of enforcing strict lead regulation laws passed by Congress in 1978.
Along with the mandate that lead in most paints shall not exceed 600 parts per million, paint that is in a deteriorating condition, on a friction surface or on chewable surfaces is also categorized as a hazard.
However, according to the EPA, recent studies have indicated that as many as 1.7 million children have lead levels in their blood that are above safe limits, and they note that the most common source of lead exposure in the US is exposure to lead-based paints.
Lead has the potential to affect almost every organ and system in the body. However, children under the age of 6 are most at risk of the ill effects of lead in the blood, which include behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia.
In extreme cases, lead ingestion can cause seizures, coma and death.
Highest lead concentrations in red and yellow paint
To investigate the potential dangers lurking at children's playgrounds, environmental scientists - led by Andrew Turner - from Plymouth University in the UK studied the content of paints on playground equipment at 50 sites across the south of England. Some of the playgrounds were less than 10 years old.
Their study, which is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, reveals that the levels of toxic materials - including chromium, antimony, cadmium and lead - pose a major potential risk to children.
In detail, the team found lead content that was 40 times higher than the recommended concentrations, as well as levels of chromium, antimony and cadmium that were higher than anticipated.
Similar to the laws regarding lead paint in the US in 1978, the European Commission (EC) passed a directive in 1977 that required all paints containing more than 5,000 parts per million of lead to be labeled with a warning stating that they are not to be used on surfaces likely to be chewed by children.
And further guidelines put into use in the UK recommend that new paint is either lead-free or contains less than 2,500 parts per million. Surprisingly, however, the study revealed that in some cases, there were lead levels that were at 152,000 parts per million, which were detected in railings, handles and gates.
Interestingly, the researchers found the highest concentrations of lead and other toxic materials in yellow or red paints. Furthermore, the age of the playground did not indicate potential hazards; some playgrounds were built in 2009.
Turner says that playground coatings are typically relatively safe when they are "undisturbed and intact."
"But once the film begins to deteriorate through abrasion or via exposure to UV light and moisture," he says, "the paint begins to crack, flake and chalk, and metal-bearing particulates are mobilized into the environment."
'Results could be potentially replicated further afield'
As a result of their findings, the researchers have compiled some recommendations that playground operators should immediately take into consideration.
Firstly, they say the surfaces of playground equipment should be regularly monitored, and flaked or cracked paint should be attended to. Additionally, any paint that is in poor condition should be removed and repainted with lead-free paint.
What is more, parents should be aware of the dangers of their children biting or sucking on painted surfaces as a result of these findings.
Although the study was conducted in the UK, Turner notes that the issues are not restricted to their country alone:
"[...] 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."
He adds that although "it is difficult to attribute poisoning directly to paint on playground equipment because the effects of lead are cumulative," other studies have "strongly suggested that paint is the source of intoxication."
Medical News Today previously reported on a study that suggested in the Middle Ages, wealthy people were likely exposed to toxic heavy metals because they were the only class that had access to expensive cups and plates glazed with lead oxide.