The city detected it in soil near its just-closed playground more than a month ago but decided there was no immediate risk.
Tarpon Springs knew about high arsenic levels in the soil around its wooden Discovery Playground for more than a month before it closed the playground this week.
City officials said Tuesday they closed the playground after getting new information Sunday from a St. Petersburg Times story that reported pressure-treated playgrounds are leaking arsenic into the soil. The arsenic comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that is infused into the wood to make it last longer.
The Times test showed the ground near the popular Tarpon Springs playground had arsenic at levels that were six times higher than the state's safety limit, so officials decided to close it for now.
But city records show that Tarpon Springs hired a company to test the playground in January and got the results the first week of February.
And it turns out that the city's tests showed much higher arsenic levels than the Times test did.
By the playground's fire pole, the city tests found the soil had more than 17 times more arsenic than the state's safety limit. Soil by the balance beam had 15 times more arsenic than the limit.
"There's no coverup here, I can tell you that," said Paul Smith, the city's public services administrator. "I thought, this is elevated (levels), but it's not an immediate health risk."
Tarpon Springs is not the only local government scrambling to figure out what to do about arsenic leaching out into playgrounds. The Times tested five playgrounds and found arsenic in every case at levels higher than the state considers safe. Crystal River plans to test its Creative Community Playground, Tampa will test Al Lopez Park and New Port Richey will test its playground at Sims Park.
Local officials are faced with contradictory science and little direction from state and federal regulators. Arsenic is leaking out of the wood, but how much risk does it pose to children and adults? Regulators can't say. The wood-treatment industry says its own studies show the wood is safe.
In Tarpon Springs, officials tried to be proactive and ordered their own tests when the Times called to get information about the playground months ago.
"When we got the news, the elevations were high. We thought, there's no need to spread panic until we knew something for sure," said Juan Cruz, the city's public services director. "We decided to take precautionary measures, and we discussed them with the state Department of Environmental Protection."
Instead of going public with its arsenic test results, the city tried to manage the problem by adding extra mulch on the ground, replacing sand and coating the wood with a sealant. The Consumer Products Safety Commission concluded years ago that sealants don't keep arsenic from leaching out of pressure-treated wood, but local officials weren't aware of that.
"We really bent over backward on this issue," Cruz said. "We acted immediately. But nobody seems to know what the long-term effects are. Nobody knows anything _ not the DEP, not anybody."
Tarpon Springs Mayor Frank DiDonato said he didn't see the city's test results.
"Had I known it was like that then, I would have closed it down," DiDonato said.
Gainesville grappled with a similar situation last year. Tests showed arsenic near a wooden playground at an elementary school. School officials opted to tear it down. They hauled the playground _ and the contaminated soil around it _ to a lined landfill.
In Jacksonville, prodded by a county health official, the Duval County Public Schools ordered tests on eight elementary school playgrounds last summer. The results were a surprise, with the highest sample coming up at 96 times the state's safe limit. The arsenic seemed to be concentrated mostly around the pressure-treated posts.
School officials decided not to tear out the pressure-treated playground equipment. But when boards fall out, they replace them with non-treated wood. And, gradually, they are switching to metal or plastic equipment.
"There's absolutely no more treated wood being added to the playgrounds," Bruce Ackerman, director of environmental services for the Duval County School Board, said Wednesday. "We had never been made aware of it. When I found out the material was classified as a pesticide, I was surprised."
Local government officials say they are waiting for some kind of direction from the state DEP or the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA considered an outright ban on CCA-treated wood 19 years ago but instead allowed the industry to do a voluntary consumer awareness program. People who buy pressure-treated lumber are supposed to get an information sheet, warning that they should wear a dust mask when sawing or sanding and should wash their hands and clothes after working with the wood. Smoke from burning pressure-treated lumber can be life-threatening. But the information sheets are rarely handed out.
And most people who buy backyard wooden playsets for their kids have no idea the wood contains arsenic.
The EPA is now doing a new review of CCA wood as part of its routine pesticide registration. Several countries have banned CCA wood.
Of the five Tampa Bay area communities with playgrounds where the Times found arsenic, only one has decided not to order tests.
Hernando County public works director Emory Pierce said he has no plans to test Brooksville's Tom Varn Park, where the Times test showed about eight times more arsenic than the state considers safe.
Pierce said his department "has researched it extensively and determined it's really not a threat."
When asked what research his department conducted, Pierce said they called the EPA.
"The EPA said they had no official position," Pierce said.
He said the city won't test until "the EPA or some other relevant authority instructs us to."