That the playground equipment in a Tarpon Springs public housing complex was rusted, improperly maintained and perched on a field of broken glass was outrageous enough. Now comes information that the chipped, worn paint on the equipment contained lead, which in sufficient amounts can harm young children. Clearly, this problem has existed for years. Equally disturbing is that when the playground's unsafe condition was brought to the Housing Authority's attention last month, it was denied.
The best interests of both the residents of public housing and the taxpayers who fund public housing are served when a safe environment and careful oversight are provided. Both were lacking in this case. And if this small playground in the Mango Circle public housing complex was allowed to fall into such a state, what else is being ignored that is harmful or improper?
The playground wasn't just ignored, its condition actually was defended by Tarpon Springs Housing Authority executive director Pat Weber. After the St. Petersburg Times reported the conditions there, Weber said the playground equipment was "not unsafe," was checked "continuously" and was repaired immediately if a problem was discovered.
But here is what a nationally certified playground safety inspector wrote about the Mango Circle playground after inspecting it earlier this month: "a perfect example of a playground that has had no maintenance program or retrofitting;" "badly rusted and corroded;" "close to completely non-compliant to today's standard;" "broken glass and trash located all over site;" "totally non-compliant for fall heights and surfacing;" "it is obvious there are no inspections or maintenance conducted at this site."
And this: "There are traces of lead in the paint that is chipping, which is very hazardous to children and the environment."
After the inspector issued his scathing 11-page report, the board of directors of the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority held an emergency meeting. Within two days, the playground equipment had been demolished and hauled away, leaving only loose dirt and broken tree roots for the children of Mango Circle to play with for the last week.
Better to have no playground than an unsafe one, but the problem of lead is not so easily eliminated. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has long been concerned about lead paint on public playground equipment. Paint chips and paint dust can get on children's hands and then into their mouths.
Because the lead content of old paint varies, it is difficult to determine how much a child would have to swallow to receive toxic levels of lead. However, too much lead can cause brain and nervous system damage, slow growth, and learning and behavior problems. And unless treatment is received, lead remains in the body and can accumulate over time. Children who also are exposed to lead paint in their homes are especially at risk.
While the safety commission indicates it is unlikely that a child would be harmed from just exposure to lead paint on their playground, that exposure would add to any other lead they absorbed in other settings. Housing Authority officials should ask the county Health Department whether Mango Circle children should be tested to determine the level of lead in their blood.
The Housing Authority has not been attentive enough to the safety of children at Mango Circle. That is an error that must be corrected going forward.