Summertime — a time for free-form play in the backyard. What could be more idyllic? But before you set your sprouts loose on the lawn, take a few minutes to size up the scene for potential hazards. We’ve asked the experts to offer a few tips.
Pass on the pesticides
Maria Mergel is a research and education associate for the Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting public health and the environment by eliminating toxic pollution. Mergel says that parents should take care when using products to fertilize and weed lawns and gardens. “Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of pesticides and other toxic chemicals, and pesticides carried from the garden into the home can persist for long periods and accumulate,” she says. “In addition to washing hands, wiping shoes at the door will help to reduce pesticides and other toxic chemicals that get tracked indoors.”
Fortunately, Mergel says, parents can find safer products for treating their lawn and garden. The WTC offers a consumer guide to products titled “Grow Smart, Grow Safe” and fact sheets on how to deal with pests, from aphids to slugs to weeds, without relying on pesticides. Mergel also recommends Seattle Tilth’s Lawn and Garden Hotline for information on organic gardening. For parents who don’t do their own gardening, Mergel offers this advice: “Choose a landscaping service that does not use toxic pesticides and follows practices to prevent pest problems from developing and recurring, instead of simply spraying.” Referrals are available from the Lawn and Garden Hotline and the Coalition of Organic Landscapers.
Watch for toxins
Emily Bishton is the owner of Greenlight Gardening and an environmental educator with the Seattle Tilth Association. Seattle Tilth is a nonprofit organization dedicated to organic gardening and cultivating community by supporting community gardens. Bishton says that families should find out if the soil they plan to plant in is safe. “Before deciding where to grow veggies, it’s wise for all homeowners to consider the issue of soil safety,” she says. For instance, older homes may have been painted with lead paint, which can be present in nearby soil due to scraping and sanding that has taken place over the years. Soil near the street or in the parking strip can also have lead or other chemicals present from car exhaust from old lead-based fuels or fluid leakage. Homes in south King County or north Pierce County may have soils that contain arsenic from the now-closed Asarco Smelter. “Soil tests are a good idea if you have any doubts about soil safety,” says Bishton, “and there are several ways to ensure safe growing conditions, even if a contaminant is present.” The WTC’s hotline can provide referrals to local soil testing labs.
Check the trees
Even trees can pose a threat to a child’s safety. Galen Wright is an Olympia-based certified master arborist and owner of Washington Forestry Consultants. He urges parents who are considering purchasing a home with large trees to have the trees inspected for their health and safety by a certified arborist prior to closing. He says parents should take care especially when power lines run close to a backyard. “Power lines are frequently placed in backyards along the property lines,” Wright says. “Many times trees have grown up and are close to the conductors. Sometimes these trees are climbable. … Kids must stay out of trees with overhead power lines,” Wright says. Trees conduct electricity because they contain more water than solid wood. If a tree branch comes in contact with a power line, the current will take the path of least resistance to ground. If a human is part of that path, they could be injured, Wright says.
Play structures can provide hours of fun, but they need to be checked for safety. Tim Madeley is owner of Olympia-based Big Toys, a designer and manufacturer of commercial playground equipment. He says Big Toys is committed to both the safety of children and the safety of the environment; the equipment the company manufactures is made from recycled and sustainable materials
If you’re shopping for a play structure for your backyard, Madeley offers this advice: “First, insist upon equipment that meets or exceeds the American Society of Testing and Materials [ASTM] standards for residential playground equipment. Second, avoid equipment that contains polyvinyl chloride [PVC].” Parent should be cautious when purchasing a used play structure, Madeley says. “The safety standards for playground equipment received a substantial upgrade in the early 1990s. Equipment put in place prior to that may not be in compliance.” If you’re in doubt, Madeley recommends contacting the original manufacturer to determine if that particular piece of equipment is in compliance with current standards. The manufacturer should also be able to provide a copy of the installation instructions to ensure proper reassembly.
Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.