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News 2003

posted Jan-Feb 2003

Arsenic Playgounds

In the second week of January, Burkhard Mausberg of Environmental Defense Canada sent Jutta Mason an e-mail giving her a "heads up" about a press conference the following day. And no wonder: it turns out that Dufferin Grove Park is the poster park for arsenic in playground sand. When Mausberg's group measured arsenic levels last summer, they took a sand sample beside our pressure-treated playground structure. Our playground registered the second-highest arsenic levels in Toronto playground parks - 48.2 parts per million versus 25.3 ppm at Dovercourt Park versus 2.6 ppm at Laughlin Park, at Vaughan and Oakwood). The report can be read online at There are four nice pictures of our playground, as the report's main illustrations.

Arsenic occurs naturally in soil at concentrations from 4.8 to 13.6 ppm, so at 48.2 ppm it would seem we have a problem. Burkhard told us that last summer the Parks Department itself asked the Finance Committee for money to seal the existing pressure-treated playground structures (with an oil-based wood sealant) and to replace the sand. But that would have cost the city $300,000, and evidently Mayor Lastman vetoed the expense. Instead the city commissioned another sand analysis of city playgrounds, a bargain costing tens of thousands instead of hundreds of thousands.

Environmental Defense released their seven-city study on January 15. Claire Tucker Reid, general manager of Parks and Recreation, put out a press release the following day, saying that 31 Toronto parks playgrounds have been shown to be leaching arsenic and that details will be made known to City Council's budget advisory committee on January 27. (We tried to find out what the city's study shows about Dufferin Park, in time for this newsletter, but the general manager's office did not respond to the question.)

At Friday night supper there were various theories. Most people found the Parks Department's secrecy suspicious. But there were different ideas about what the numbers mean. Someone said they'd heard there's more arsenic in a shrimp stir-fry than in treated wood. More than a few people felt that playground equipment manufacturers might find it useful to promote panic. There certainly seemed to be a near-consensus that the steel-and-plastic playgrounds which are replacing wooden play structures are ugly and prison-like - with all the vertical bars - and hold little interest for children.

It may be that the most straightforward thing for our park is for parents to get together on the first warm day in March and paint the playground structure with sealant themselves. How long can that job take? Then the city can come in with their case loader and trucks and take out the sand, and bring in some fresh low-arsenic sand. (The sand pit needs a top-up anyway - its sand is not contaminated but it's just getting low - so the sand trucks could take care of both areas at once.)

With the immediate danger out of the way, park users could then have some imaginative discussions about the long term equipment replacement, to make sure that the future playground suits our philosophy about children's play. Watch the park bulletin board and the park list serve for more information as it becomes publicly known. Being pro-active may be important here. (The city's information page on pressure-treated wood is at

posted April-May 2003

Arsenic in the playground?

In the last newsletter we reported on the findings of Environmental Defense Canada concerning the levels of leached arsenic from pressure-treated wood in city playgrounds. Their report listed our park as the second-highest in Toronto, showing 48.2 parts per million of arsenic in the sand surrounding our playground climber. At the time of that newsletter the city was just putting the finishing touches on their report about arsenic levels, based on testing that had been done all over the city during the previous summer. The City of Toronto results turned out to be quite different from those of Environmental Defense. They showed our playground as having arsenic levels much lower than the federal government's safe limit. Our levels were listed as 6 parts per million.

Since we have a pressure-treated playground structure, that finding is just as puzzling as the first one. We spoke to Steve Ruminsky, a Richmond Hill environmental consultant from Decommissioning Consulting Services Limited, which did the city's study. He said that whereas the Environmental Defense study was based on taking one soil sample per site (which that group admitted is not considered adequate as a research method), his company took 6 samples per site. These were: one composite soil sample taken from 10 locations directly under the play structure, two soil samples around the structure, one control sample ten metres away from the structure, and two surface samples ("dislodgable particles") taken from the structure itself, one on a hand rail and one on a vertical post.

We asked Mr.Ruminsky why our treated wood structure would be so low in its leaching of arsenic if treated wood has been banned from sale in most of North America. He said he didn't know, although it's possible that older structures gradually have less arsenic to leach (ours was put up in 1984). We asked him how much it would cost to re-test our playground. He said the actual lab cost is $18 a sample. The technician to collect the 6 new samples would cost between $500 and $600, and the interpretation of the results would bring the consulting company's fee up to $1000 plus lab costs. Whew!


Next we asked Mine Elbe at Environmental Defense whether they might be interested in re-testing our playground. She said yes. They would be willing to cover the cost of 3 soil samples plus one control sample. As soon as the date and time is set for testing (there may be several different dates because Mine is interested in testing before and after a rainfall to see if that makes a difference to the results), we'll post that information on the web site. Anyone who wants to see how the testing is done can be there. (If you want to be notified by e-mail, get on the "kids" park list by e-mailing

And if there seems to be a need to paint our playground structure with a wood sealant to protect the children playing on it, park manager James Dann has said that the city would pay for the materials if we want to have a playground-user painting day. (Could be fun, with a campfire lunch and games for kids off to the side).

City news release of January 24, 2003.

Integrated Management Plan on CCA Treated-Wood Play Structures at City Playgrounds

List of Playgrounds with CCA Treated Wood that require Remedial Action

Comparison of Environmental Defence Canada findings and City Study Results

posted May 2003

Arsenic re-testing

Read Veronica's report >>

Veronica Pochmursky has played shinny hockey at Dufferin rink for three years. She's also an environmental worker, and she's done some research for us, on arsenic and kids. She wrote up her findings and e-mailed them, with this note: "Please bear in mind when posting this article, I am not a professional toxicologist. I did run my calculations past my cousin, who does work professionally as a toxicologist, so I'm pretty comfortable with what I've presented. But, my last paragraph says it all. Risk is a very personal thing and what is acceptable to one person may be totally unacceptable to another. Parents should inform themselves and make up their own minds. Personally, I think there are more pressing issues (smoking and too many cars) to fight, so I'm not taking up the playground structure fight." Read more >>

posted June 2003

Good news on arsenic in the playground

After Environmental Defence Canada called a press conference in March to announce leaching of arsenic in the sand around pressure-treated playground equipment (with our park listed as one of the worst in the country, 48.2 parts arsenic per million), lots of people got worried. The City's Parks Division had commissioned a study of playground arsenic levels the previous summer. They released their findings the week after the alarming ones. According to the Parks Department study, our playground equipment was NOT leaching much arsenic at all (just over 6 parts per million parts of sand, with anything under 12 ppm considered acceptable).

What to believe? When there are two such contradictory findings, it seems a good idea to look into the matter some more. The Parks Division was unwilling to re-test, but Environmental Defence said they would co-operate with us. Veronica Pochmursky, a shinny hockey player at our rink who has become a good friend of the park, agreed to take on the testing from our end (she has done this work professionally for many years). So BoAnne Tran from Environmental Defence came to the park on Environment Day (April 26) and joined Veronica in taking seven new samples, with many park users observing. They took more surface samples, like those the city's testers had taken, and deeper samples, like those previously taken by Environmental Defence. They checked around both the 1984 playground structures and the 1998 structures. Interesting! We brought the samples to a lab in Mississauga, and now the results have come back. They show even lower readings of arsenic than the Parks Division study showed, ranging from 1.2ppm to 4.1ppm, with the exception of one sample at 7.7ppm. Even that higher sample is still well below the acceptable level of 12 parts arsenic per million parts of sand.

Carol Cormier of the Parks Division had promised that if our tests showed a higher than acceptable arsenic reading, the city would provide the expensive sealant for our playground structures. Many people from the neighbourhood already volunteered to help seal the playground. Now it turns out it's not necessary. Wonderful! And parents can let their children play at the park with their minds at ease.

We are sharing the cost of the re-testing with Environmental Defence. Our portion is $51.66, which we'll pay by collecting a loonie each from 51 people in the playground and/ or at Friday night supper. Beyond that, Veronica Pochmursky has assembled a whole lot of background information about arsenic and its effects. Her article is posted on our web site: Read more >>

posted July 15, 2006

The politics of water in the park: Harmonization

On Monday June 23, the park staff prepared to open the wading pool a week early (the temperature was 31 degrees celsius and rising). But just before noon Ron Winn, the interim district park manager, called and said he had spoken to the general manager of Parks and Recreation, Claire Tucker Reid, and that we would NOT be permitted to have the wading pool open until the regular summer opening date, at the end of the week. The policy of "harmonization" of services mandated keeping all the wading pools closed until they could all be opened at the same time, on a previously established schedule.

We were told to turn on the four-foot spurt of water at the centre of the wading pool instead, to act as a "cooling station." So for two sweltering days we were treated to the spectacle of an empty wading pool with people sitting all around this little water spurt. Six or eight kids at a time had some fun versus the 30 or 40 who can dance in and out of pool when it's filled with water.

Jutta Mason e-mailed Ms. Tucker Reid, on Monday afternoon, to seek a change of mind, but she did not reply. People contacted their friends across the city, as the temperature continued to rise, and they passed phone numbers and e-mails back and forth. Our park phone rang and rang. Jutta put City Councillor Mario Silva's number on the voice mail since people couldn't be standing there answering the phone all the time. People got all sorts of replies from the city staff they lobbied: that the wading pool couldn't be opened because of security issues (?), lack of training, lack of budget, or because of various risk factors; that we already had a lovely splash pad (the four-foot water spurt), that maybe we'd open in two hours, maybe we'd open in July, maybe they'd put you on hold or give you another number to call -- chaos.

Then on Wednesday morning we were allowed to open after all. By noon the word was out and the pool was full of kids, normal for a hot day.

Many people who use the park wrote letters and called the city about the pool openings. Isaac Meyer Odell sent us a copy of his letter:

Dear Ms. Tucker Reid,

I'm writing to you in hopes that you might reconsider the decision to suppress the early opening of the Dufferin Grove Park wading pool. Today, I spent several frustrating hours petitioning Councillor Silva's office to open the pool. The answer we received from the councillor's office was that if there was sufficient staff there then the pool ought to be opened. Yet the park staff were told to keep it closed. This experience left us all with sour feelings about the bureaucratic mechanisms of the city that seem to have no way of responding to the immediate concerns of our community.</p> <p>As a new parent I have become keenly aware of what a precious thing it is to live close to such a park. My son and I go there every day to connect with our community and seek refuge from the tedium of daily life. As the summer heat has advanced upon us I have discovered that the only cool area of my home is the basement. I do not relish having to keep my son in the basement when there seems to be such wonderful resource just around the corner. Given that the weather report does not show that there will be any relief in sight, I ask you to please reconsider.

Isaac Meyer Odell

posted July 15, 2006

Editorial: the "harmonization" policy

It seems to me that having "harmonization" as the cornerstone of park policy - meaning, that every part of the city gets the same services/ facilities - has worked out badly and will continue that way. It inevitably has the (unwanted) effect of dragging all our facilities down to the same low level. There should be fairness, there MUST be improvement, but if the city could please adopt "maximum use of existing resources" as the cornerstone instead, I think we could attain our fairness goal so much better. The folks in charge CANNOT continue to keep rinks and pools sitting idle well after the season for them has begun.

The broad hammer that gets used to apply the "one size fits all" approach (which "harmonization" seems to lead to) is such a clumsy instrument. In the matter of opening the wading pools to suit the weather, for instance, the Dufferin Park pool is in an unusual situation -- at mid-day the pool and our whole playground are almost completely in shade. For that reason, on hot days, the whole area is full of people. Park wading pools that haven't got tree cover are not much used on really hot days. So during an early heat wave the wading pools could be opened selectively, focusing on pools with shade. In the case of unshaded pools, resources could be used instead to plant (and care for) trees around their perimeter. That would be so much more sensible than opening all the pools simultaneously by applying the "harmonization" rule.

God help us, that we won't have to carry on too many more of these shake-the-bushes campaigns to get the city staff to let the citizens use the simple, cheap amenities of public space - outdoor rinks, wading pools, picnic areas. It is my impression that if city staff don't find a way to plan ahead better and to alter their policies so that they can fit logic, citizens will progressively lose confidence in their ability to carry out their stewardship responsibilities.

Jutta Mason

posted July 15, 2003

The many joys of water in the park

Our wading pool

On the first hot day this season, Sunday June 22, there was water all over the park - not a flood, but a stream of good uses of the water that comes to us from Lake Ontario. In the sandpit by the playground, the hose was connected to the tap we bought from Lee Valley Tools. All day, between 10 and 30 kids (and some of their parents) were making channels for a river system - with lots of bridges -that wound through the sandpit and out into further "rivers" leading south. A sprinkler was set up in the wading pool (which was not yet open), and kids were not only running through the sprinkler but also finding out all the ways in which a hose could be kinked to change the water flow and trick people. Up by the pizza oven there was another sprinkler. Kids ran through that one too, and so did the performers from Clay and Paper Theatre when they'd finished their parade through Councillor Silva's annual Summerfest flea market. To the north of the rink house, the Eagles soccer club was running a car wash. They sudsed tow trucks as well as the cars they flagged down at the Dufferin mall light, and at the end they also sudsed each other.

A hose led to the new cherry trees, which need a lot of water when they're just getting established, and another hose snaked in and out of Arie Kemp's poppy garden beside the hockey rink. Arie no longer looks after the park gardens but his legacy is evident all over - as the "seed man" he collected the most beautiful seeds he could find all over the city and sowed them in our park, and by now every crack in the concrete and every flowerbed has his flowers re-seeding themselves. Those flowers get thirsty, so we water them.

From 10 until 3, Councillor Silva and his assistants filled up their big coolers at the sink in our half-finished park kitchen and hauled them back to the Summerfest table for free drinks made with orange powder. Later, when it was time to wash the dishes from the pizza oven, the cooks sprayed one another with our new kitchen sprayer - it has very strong spray that is excellent for cleaning dishes and for park staff waterfights. The waterfight theme was repeated at most of the birthday parties and barbecues happening throughout the park. One of the parties was partly on stilts, because many of the guests - as well as the host - were stiltwalkers. They danced on stilts, leaned up against the high branches of trees, and the host had an orange and a green water pistol with which he was allowed to squirt anyone he chose, on stilts or on the ground.

At the end of the afternoon the kids at the playground disconnected the sprinkler from the hose and tried to use the hose to fill the pool. There was so much silt left over from the winter that the drains plugged and the pool really did begin to fill - with dark brown opaque mud-water. Kids splashed in this mukky soup and then used their plastic shovels to unplug the drains - with help from some grownups - so that there would be no standing water during the night.

Eventually, everyone went home. All that was left by way of sound late at night was the sprinkler, swishing water back and forth between the roses and the potato plants in the adjoining park flower and vegetable gardens. What a great thing, a park in a city beside a huge lake full of water to draw on, on a hot day.

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