By Dustin Brown
Tiffany Elliott always keeps a close eye on her children when they climb around the upper playground of Juniper Valley Park in Middle Village.
Speaking with the authority of a concerned mother who has done her homework, Elliott walked around the playground one frigid morning this week and rattled off an inventory of dangers she contends are lurking in the aging equipment — a claim the city Parks Department denies.
Large bolts protrude from the jungle gym, where gaps between bars are wide enough to potentially trap a child’s head, she said. Guardrails need to be installed on a climbing mound made up of tall wooden blocks, and the protective matting that covers the ground ends too close to the edge of the equipment.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Elliott, a mother of two young boys who represents the Juniper Park Civic Association. “You can see how dangerous it is.”
Furthermore, she said much of the equipment is made from wood that has been treated with a preservative made from arsenic, a known carcinogen that can leach out of the lumber and onto the surface of the wood.
“If the kids ingest it, they could get neurological problems or even cancer,” she said.
Elliott has been petitioning the city Parks Department to remove the equipment and replace it with two separate, age-appropriate playground areas.
The Parks Department has already addressed some safety concerns by sawing off a large portion of the climbing blocks and caulking decaying spots in the wood.
But a department spokeswoman stressed that the playground “does not fail the park’s improvement rating.”
“If our parks fail, then we attend to that,” the spokeswoman said. “The playground is antiquated but safe.”
City Councilman Dennis Gallagher (R-Middle Village) has asked that $180,000 left over from another project be used to renovate the playground.
“If the request is granted, that money will go towards Juniper Valley playground,” the Parks spokeswoman said.
But in light of the city’s budget crisis, Gallagher emphasized that there is no guarantee the funding would go to the playground.
Elliott has also requested grants for the improvements from private foundations.
Although Monday morning’s cold weather prevented many children from venturing to the playground, the few parents who appeared with their kids also voiced concerns about its safety.
“It has to be totally redone because it’s really old, out of date,” said Yvonne Pacific, a mother from the neighborhood who brought her 5-year-old daughter to play. “If you go to every other playground, they have the nice new jungle gyms. Here you would expect to see the same, but you don’t.”
Bill Estrella, a grandfather who brought his daughter’s two sons to the park, said he always has to keep his eye on the children when they play there.
“It’s not safe,” he said.
Elliott worries because she believes many of the dangers are unknown to the parents of most children who flock to the playground every day.
“They don’t know that there’s arsenic in the wood. They don’t know about the head entrapments,” Elliott said. “If you don’t know what to look for, accidents happen.”
In December, a certified playground safety inspector who examined the site with Elliott and Gallagher agreed that the equipment is long overdue for an overhaul.
“The equipment is so old it has gone through three sets of standards and a couple of guideline changes since it’s been installed,” said the inspector, who requested that his name not be used.
But he also stressed that there are many playgrounds throughout the city with similar equipment and downplayed the dangers posed to children who use it.
“There was nothing glaring out there where I said, ‘Oh my god, this is going to cut somebody’s head off,” said the inspector. “I don’t think anybody’s going to get really hurt there tomorrow. You can get hurt falling out of bed, too.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.