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A Visit to Seneca Creek State Park

In 1999, the Recycled Tire Playground at Seneca Creek State Park was constructed using 80 to 100 used tires.

On a recent summer morning, desperate to entertain my rowdy brood of three, we drove to for a picnic and play time.  The park is just five minutes up Clopper Road from our townhouse in Germantown. 

The Pines is one of five picnic areas in the park.  The picnic tables - a mix of old-fashioned wood and metal interspersed with newer recycled plastic - are surrounded by mature pine trees.  A fragrant layer of pine needles covers the ground.  Our simple lunch was elevated to an experience by enjoying it under the trees surrounded by bird song.

Josette Wiggins, park ranger, said the Pines picnic area is Seneca Creek State Park’s most popular.  “This picnic area is right across from the playground.  It’s the hot-spot because it’s in between the boat center and the playground.  The bugs tend not to gather underneath the pine trees.  It’s very open and flat.”

My six-year-old thought to bring a trash bag from the car, which proved useful, given that all of Maryland's state parks are trash-free.  You have to pack out everything that you bring in.  My sons reported that there wasn't even a trash can in the men's room.  There were free biodegradable trash bags mounted to a display board for visitor use.

After lunch, we went to the nearby play area, one of two public playgrounds in Seneca Creek State Park.  Built in 1999, the Recycled Tire Playground lives up to its name.  Small chunks of tires cover the ground and provide a surprisingly springy surface upon which to walk.  A 50-foot zip line flanked by two enormous tires greets you when you enter.  There is a gigantic tire monster upon which to climb.   

Kendall Mott, maintenance supervisor for Seneca Creek State Park, said, “The zip line is always in use.  We’ve had to replace the zip cable probably three to four times just due to the wear and fatigue on the cable.”  Mott said that the ten tire bouncer is also popular.   

In the 12 years since the park was built, public concern has increased over the safety of reusing tires for artificial turf and playground fill material.  Do tire playgrounds pose a risk to human health?  Based upon available information, the United States Environmental Protection Agency says no. 

In 2009, the EPA conducted a limited investigation regarding the use of recycled tire materials in playgrounds and artificial turf fields.  The study suggested that air concentrations of particulate matter and metals in some heavily used recycled tire playgrounds may be higher than background levels, although still lower than health-based benchmarks.  When asked about these findings, an EPA spokesperson provided a written statement that “on average, concentrations of components monitored in this study were below levels of concern.” 

The EPA has also looked at additional studies conducted by Connecticut and California.  These studies found no evidence of an elevated health risk for children or adults as a result of exposure to artificial turf fields made of crumb rubber, “with the possible exception [in the California study] of an increased skin abrasion rate on artificial turf relative to natural turf.” 

At Seneca Creek State Park, staff regularly inspect the tires at the Recycled Tire Playground for signs of damage.  Some of the tires have been replaced due to wear or sidewall fatigue.

Mott was present when the park was constructed.  “To my knowledge, there aren’t any environmental concerns with the tires," he said.  "They were all pressure washed before we used them." 

Mott said that park staff drill holes in the bottom of the tires so that water doesn't pool in them and create mosquito habitat.  "The rubber sometimes can wear off and get your fingers black, but to my knowledge, there’s nothing on them that would be environmentally unsafe,” he said.  Nonetheless, it's a good idea to wash your hands after using the playground equipment, especially before eating. 

Our family plans our visits for early in the day.  Given that the tires were cleaned prior to use, there probably isn’t a concern about them off-gassing any chemicals.  However, since volatile organic compounds are released in higher concentrations on hot days, it doesn’t hurt to visit when the air is cooler.  Besides, in the afternoon, the tires are warmed by the sun and can feel quite hot to the touch.  

My ten-year-old recommends that you try the zip line.  

is open daily from 8 a.m. until sunset.  From April through October, there is an entrance fee of $2 per Maryland resident ($3 per non-resident) on holidays and weekends.

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