Sixty-six pieces of playground and other equipment or facilities in Erie County parks have lead paint that could pose risks to children, said Parks Commissioner Troy Schinzel. Removing these old slides and swing sets, which date as far back as the 1960s, is now a "top priority" of the County Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry and should be gone in two weeks, he said.
The six affected parks include Chestnut Ridge, Akron Falls, Sprague Brook, Elma Meadows, Emery and Ellicott Creek.
"We’re working as quickly as possible to take care of this," he said.
Schinzel spoke to county legislators after only days on the job in response to the Comptroller's Office findings that a dozen pieces of old playground equipment tested positive for lead paint. Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and his staff tested the equipment as part of a parks tour showing deteriorated park conditions.
County health and parks personnel tested playground equipment, shelters, picnic tables and bathrooms. Park officials said 52 pieces of playground equipment out of 94 inspected – more than half – tested positive for lead. The county's parks master plans have recommended the removal of outdated playground equipment dating back to 2003.
Many of the metal play sets tested had layers of chipped, worn or peeling paint, Mychajliw noted. His office submitted paint samples from a dozen old slides and swing sets to an outside lab for verification. The lab found 11 had levels that exceeded safety standards. Paint samples from five pieces of equipment had lead concentration levels that exceeded 10 percent.
Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said that after the county Health Department received notification of the lead findings, she directed a health inspector to tour the parks with park staff and to test all old playground and shelter equipment for the presence of lead using a special X-ray gun.
She also said that while lead paint on playground equipment poses a risk, the risk is low. The county Health Department has found no cases in which playground equipment led to elevated blood lead levels in children, she said. Schinzel added that there are no government requirements mandating or recommending that playground equipment be tested for lead.
However, he said, county employees would be trained Friday on safe lead removal techniques and will begin a systematic tear down and removal of the playground equipment with lead paint starting next week. The affected equipment has already been roped off with caution tape. Any swings that could be removed were removed.
Schinzel also pointed out that while pieces of old equipment remain, hundreds of others have been removed over the years. Any lead-tainted playground equipment with special significance or historic value will be treated and repainted to make them safe.
Mychajliw said he was aware that at least one piece of equipment, with a baby swing, had not been roped off as of Monday. It was unclear whether the equipment was never roped off, or if that barrier had been removed by parkgoers.
Newer and larger playgrounds have been erected in county parks over the years as the county moved away from having a few individual swings and slides near each picnic pavilion. Most of those playgrounds pose no known lead paint risks.
Republican legislators expressed concern that so much of the older equipment still remains in place, especially since the county was alerted to the problem three weeks ago. Legislator Edward Rath III called the slow parks response a "failure."
"Residents deserve significantly better than this," he said.
Democratic legislators John Bruso and Howard Johnson asked questions attempting to draw out Mychajliw's motivations for testing the playground equipment. They asked how long it took for Mychajliw to alert the county to the lead paint issues after he found them and whether Mychajliw used county money or his own campaign funds to buy the lead test kits.
"I want to make sure this is not a political, theatrical thing," said Bruso, majority leader and chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee.
Mychajliw showed that he emailed a letter raising his safety concerns to Burstein as soon as he got back to the office after conducting the initial tests on July 16. He also used campaign funds to pay for the lead tests, he said, because he wanted the tests to be done quickly for the safety of children and not have the purchase of the tests tied up in red tape.
Several officials took swipes at County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who is running for re-election this year. Mychajliw faulted Poloncarz for not pledging immediate action to rope off and remove the old playground equipment and praised legislators, parks and health officials for taking prompter action.
Legislator Lynne Dixon, who is running against Poloncarz, repeatedly pointed out that some county parks employees were cleaning up parts of Elma Meadows for Poloncarz's Elma Meadows golf tournament fundraiser on Tuesday instead of working on securing playground equipment.
"It seems to me it should be all hands on deck," she said.
Democratic Legislator Timothy Meyers said he was extremely frustrated by the tone of questioning on all sides during the Legislature committee, which seemed focused on where to pin the blame instead of county leaders taking collective ownership of the problem.
"This has been sitting in front of us for 20 years," he said. "We should be getting in front of this."
Legislators said they want an update from Schinzel on the status of the playground equipment removal next month.
"I am truly about accountability," Bruso said, asking for an executive summary by Sept. 1. "We’re going to ask you to come back. The public deserves that. We need that action plan."