September 8, 1988
HEALTH: ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARDS; Consumer Group Challenges Agency Over Sandbox Safety By WARREN E. LEARY, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES LEAD: Children's sandboxes, normally the place of castles, sculptures and imaginary wars, are at the center of an actual battle over what some people charge are dangers lurking in the sand.
Children's sandboxes, normally the place of castles, sculptures and imaginary wars, are at the center of an actual battle over what some people charge are dangers lurking in the sand.
The Health Research Group, a Washington-based consumers' group with ties to Ralph Nader, has argued for almost two years that there are asbestos-related particles in some play sands on the market and that the particles pose a long-term cancer risk to children. The group is urging a recall or ban on these products.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission and the stone industry say there is no convincing evidence that play sand is hazardous, and they see no need for emergency action.
The sand in question is the fine, white, powdery variety taken from quarries in coastal areas and sold at toy and hardware stores. Mineral Form at Issue
In part, the debate involves what form of the mineral tremolite is present in the sand. Both sides acknowledge that tremolite is a contaminant in some sand; the amount varies greatly from sample to sample, but in most cases the quantities are minute.
The consumer group says the tremolite is found in a fibrous form in play sand; thus, its structure is similar to types of asbestos already known to cause lung disease and cancer. Even in small quantities such particles can be a hazard if inhaled because they are not cleared from the lungs and the effects are cumulative.
The industry and the safety commission say the tremolite, when present in sand, is in a crystalline form, which they say is safer.
The long-running battle has been heating up. Last month the consumer group threatened to sue the commission after it did not formally answer a petition filed by the consumer group more than 20 months ago. The group said this was an unreasonable delay under the law. The commission recently said its staff would prepare a report and present the case to the commission for a decision next month. 'Evidence Doesn't Exist'
After months of looking into the issue, spokesmen for the commission said little data existed indicating that play sand posed a health threat and that parents should not be alarmed.
''If we could demonstrate there is a hazard, we would act quickly, particularly because it would involve children,'' said Sandra Eberle, the commission's program manager for chemical hazards. ''But in the minds of our scientific staff, that evidence doesn't exist.''
Ms. Eberle added, ''This is upsetting to us because parents get concerned when they hear about it and we have to spend a lot of time telling people that this is not asbestos in the sand.''
But the Health Research Group said the commission was using technicalities to avoid the issue and accepting industry definitions of asbestos that exclude suspect particles found in some samples. Asbestos Identification Cited
Dr. Lynn Silver, a researcher with the consumer group, said tremolite was one of six minerals identified commericially in the rock industry by the term ''asbestos.'' Some scientists believe tremolite particles can cause cancer like other forms of asbestos to which humans are exposed.
Dr. Silver said the commission had ''failed in its duty to protect children,'' and added, ''This is a kind of hazard in children that doesn't manifest itself for 20 years, and then it's too late.''
There are many sources of play sand, but no particular ones have been designated as hazardous because no one has surveyed them all.
Dr. Silver said the suspect particles were too fine for consumers to detect by sifting. She suggests that parents looking for play sand should opt for coarser varieties, which contain different minerals and are considered safer by some experts.
Asbestos is a long, fibrous mineral material once used to insulate buildings, ships and other structures, as well as for making fireproof materials. Inhaled asbestos can cause cancer of the lungs and other organs. No Tremolite Hazard Found
Rick Renninger, senior vice president of the National Stone Association, an industry group representing quarry operators, said the crystalline type of tremolite was different from the fibrous form considered as a type of asbestos. Mr. Renninger, a geologist, asserted that there was no evidence indicating that this crystalline form, which he said was not truly asbestos, was related to cancer or any other disease.
''If there was a hazard to tremolite we would have seen asbestos-related disease in the industry, and we haven't,'' Mr. Renninger said.
The safety commission said it had samples of play sand tested, and only one was found to contain trace amounts of tremolite asbestos. The crystalline form of tremolite was detected in small amounts in other samples, the commission said, but no human or animal studies demonstrate that this type causes cancer.
Ms. Eberle, the commission official responsible for chemical hazards, conceded, however, that this might be because most tremolite cancer studies have been done with the asbestos form and not its crystalline cousin. 'Skull and Crossbones' Label
Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, professor of environmental medicine and pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, said his laboratory independently tested play sand bought at local stores and found that ''a substantial fraction'' contained fibers that look and feel like fibers of asbestos.
''If children inhale these fibers they are at risk of getting lung cancer later,'' he said. ''Either this play sand should be banned or labeled with a skull and crossbones.''
The question about play sand arose in 1986 when Mark Germine, a geologist who was also a medical student at the New Jersey Medical School, wrote a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine saying he had found that some bags of commercial play sand containing tremolite asbestos. Health officials in New Jersey and Massachusetts later found traces of asbestos-like fibers in some play sands, which were voluntarily recalled by producers.
Dr. Germine, who now is working with the Health Research Group on the play sand issue, subsequently petitioned the safety commission to ban pulverized limestone products, including lawn and garden limestone and consumer gravel products.