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Parents Demand Answers on Lead at School Playgrounds

Officials in the Department of General Services (DGS) said they will release an update about lead levels on D.C. public school playgrounds within the coming months. They revealed this timeline amid demands from parents, community members and the D.C. Council for a solution to a citywide problem.

Aspects of this dilemma of particular concern to Jael Nicole Anker-Lagos and other members of the Bruce-Monroe Park View community involve the presence of lead and other contaminants on the grounds of D.C.’s recreation centers, and the department’s level of transparency about the use of hazardous material in place of the rubber implicated in earlier reports.

“Our children are being exposed to lead and now another toxic material. Why would they spend money on this project without community input?” Anker-Lagos, a mother of three students at Bruce-Monroe Elementary School at Park View in Northwest, said in reference to the plastic-wrapped silica filling she said DGS contractors plan to install at the Park View Recreation Center.

Since last spring, when DGS deemed the Park View soccer field unfit for use, Anker-Lagos’ young ones and other Bruce-Monroe kindergarteners have continued to spend their recess at the Park View Recreation Center, the only nearby outdoor space considered large enough for nearly 500 students. At least one parent has since opted out of their child playing on that surface.

“The safety sheet they used was biased,” said Anker-Lagos, also a board member of Parent-Teachers United for Bruce-Monroe Elementary.

The Park View Recreation Center is one of the places where the soccer field was deemed unfit for use. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

“Of course the manufacturer would want us to think it’s safe. I don’t want my kids to go through that. I don’t want other children to be exposed, but I’m not going to tell teachers to not let my kids play outside. If that’s their only option for play, I might be poisoning my child right now.”

Early last month, 11 of 13 council members, including Robert White (D-At Large), chair of the council’s Committee on Facilities and Procurement, sent a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser demanding the immediate testing of the Department of Parks and Recreation’s outdoor spaces and other relevant material. Other requests included an accelerated test of all D.C. public school playgrounds and a plan of action from DGS.

This concerted action followed the release of a report commissioned by DGS in September showing significant levels of lead in the “pour-in-place” rubber-polyurethane matting found on 17 District playgrounds — including Thomson Elementary and Truesdell Education Campus in Northwest and River Terrace Education Campus in Northeast. In their September report, DGS officials didn’t designate the material as the source of the lead, pointing instead to lead paint chips found in nearby buildings and local lead-contaminated soil that made its way to the playgrounds.

DGS’ cleanup strategy, a process called remediation, involved pressure washing and specialized vacuuming at 14 of the 17 sites and shuttering six others over the summer as contractors removed portions of the pour-in-place material and stabilized flaking paint. Officials told The Informer their contractors, out of precaution, also vacuumed all of the nearly 90 DCPS playgrounds that had pour-in-place surface material.

Exposure to even the tiniest of lead fragments can cause hyperactivity and irritability in children along with long-term learning problems, hearing loss and delayed growth. A 2016 DGS report showed high levels of lead in the water at 64 out of 113 D.C. public schools. When a subsequent document revealed a similar situation at more than a dozen fields with synthetic turf. Bowser launched a task force and Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) hosted a hearing.

At the time, parents not only expressed concerns about the lead presence, but that of other deadly chemicals and the likelihood of those surfaces getting unbearably hot for children. In recent years, some local parents such as Evan Yeats remained focused on equity and transparency.

“Some schools get all of their questions answered in meetings, and other schools barely get notified when the playgrounds were closed,” said Yeats, a Thomson Elementary parent who represents ANC single-member district 4B01, which includes Takoma Education Campus in Northwest.

Yeats recounted his feelings of frustration upon learning that DGS had cordoned off the outdoor play area at Thomson, along with Cardozo Education Campus in Northwest and Aiton Elementary School without notifying parents. He said officials eventually sent a letter to the multilingual population in English. Questions about across-the-board safety standards and how to dispose of soil in the vegetable garden fell on deaf ears.

“DGS refused to commit to a standard for lead contamination,” Yeats said. “When you allow different standards, you open yourself up for problems in equity. They tested more than 80 other schools and kept those results secret. They haven’t taken it as seriously as they could have.”

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