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What’s in your playground?

Posted 8:25 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023

UWL Senior Katie Peterson prepares samples. To simulate entering the stomach, samples of rubber play surface, wood chips and sand are added to acidic solutions, shaken up and heated at body temperature for two hours, the amount of time the sample would be in someone’s stomach. To simulate a being put in the mouth, a clean water solution is used instead of the acid solution.

UWL chemistry researchers study trace metal contamination in playground surfaces

Slippers on their feet, chemistry researchers pass through two doors, arriving in a small room where filtered air circulates on the third floor of UW-La Crosse’s Prairie Springs Science Center. Inside the glass walls of this "clean lab" researchers in white lab coats, gloves and goggles are careful not to track in even a hint of contamination. 

“This is probably the cleanest place in southwest Wisconsin,” notes UWL Chemistry Professor Kristofer Rolfhus, a glimmer of pride in his eyes.

While their research is as closed off from the rest of the world as it can be, the application of their work will extend far beyond these walls. The results will be shared with La Crosse city officials and school districts with the goal of better public health for the La Crosse area and beyond.

Rolfhus and his team of three undergraduate research students received permission from school districts and city officials to sample playground surfaces for contaminants. They have collected surface from 20 different spots in the region. All of the samples were gathered by community members, including children, so the research is truly “citizen science” at work, notes Rolfhus.

“The ultimate goal is to increase awareness, so managers can make more informed decisions about what surfaces children are playing on,” says Rolfhus.

Teamwork for community health

A team of three UWL undergraduate students in chemistry and biochemistry are working on the research with mentor Kris Rolfhus (right). They are, from left, William Murphy, a junior biochemistry major; Abigail Jahn, a junior chemistry major; and Katie Peterson, a senior chemistry major with an environmental concentration.

The team of chemists is testing each sample for trace metals such as lead and arsenic. These contaminants could be found as rubber chips in many playground surfaces are created using shredded auto tires, which have questionable origin in terms of cleanliness. If the samples produce solutions with concentrations of trace metals above what would be considered safe, then the team will be able to inform the public of the potential risk.

“Sometimes  there is a  disconnect between the community and what we are doing in this building,” says Rolfhus. “Everyone here is doing important work, and it’s nice to be able to directly tie what we are doing here to the health of community members.”

The UWL research is in partnership with the national and local organizations, the American Geophysical Union’s Thriving Earth Exchange and the Safer Playspaces  and Community Environments, respectively.

About a year ago, Thriving Earth Exchange asked Rolfhus if he was interested in testing contaminants in city and school district playground surfaces. The team of UWL chemistry researchers — including Rolfhus and three undergraduate students— attended the  La Crosse Earth Fair in early spring to hand out sample collection kits to gather playground surfaces from various city locations and return to UWL for testing. They collected a total of 32  samples.

While the group is looking at trace metals in rubber, wood chip and sand surfaces, many other contaminants can make their way into playground surfaces such as polyaromatic hydrocarbons, chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline. This study will just examine trace metal contaminants.

The aim is to compare the relative extraction of trace metals from shredded rubber to wood chips and sand, which are also popular playground surface types. They’ll use special instruments to mimic what happens to these materials as they sit in the mouth and stomach, just as they would if someone were to ingest them.

UWL Senior Katie Peterson, a chemistry major with environmental science concentration, started conducting research with Rolfhus as a sophomore. When he proposed focusing on the playground surface study, she was intrigued.

“I thought it was a good idea because it is community-based research, and it was a bigger-picture project than what I’ve previously worked on,” she says.

The partner organizations are interested in using Rolfhus’ initial study to create a toolkit that could be shared with other communities to do the same type of citizen science sample research to  raise more awareness about potential contamination, he adds.

The UWL chemistry team anticipates having results by the end of 2023, which will then be communicated to those who contributed samples, as well as city and school district officials.


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