Lead levels in The City's parks persist 

Paint chips with hazardous levels of lead could be threatening children in hundreds of open spaces in The City, and despite a decade of work, San Francisco has only made a dent in resolving the issue.

In the past 10 years, the Recreation and Park Department has spent $2 million, or $200,000 a year, to test and monitor lead levels at 150 public facilities. However, hundreds of public facilities still have hazardous levels, according to the Department of Public Health.

Each year, Rec and Park identifies the most-toxic sites based on risk and how often they’re used. Usually, the list consists of areas not overseen by the department. The current tally shows 10 locations, including Willie Woo Woo Wong Playground in Chinatown and Pioneer Park at Coit Tower.

“If it’s in a place where it’s accessible to children, then we’re going to move to control the area,” Rec and Park Division Manager Jeffrey Bramlett said. “[All of them] are not necessarily Rec and Park sites, but we send staff there to help them.”

However, the allotted dollars fall short of demand, as only $200,000 a year is budgeted, according to Department of Health program manager Karen Cohn.

“One year, [Rec and Park] spent it all on Camp Mather,” Cohn said. “They need to remediate hazards, but they are only given $200,000 a year and that doesn’t go very far.”

A 1979 federal law significantly restricted the amount of lead used in paint. However, because many buildings and facilities in The City predate the law, inevitably there’s potent lead particles in most paint or primer even if a building has been repainted, Cohn said.

“[Rec and Park] has to keep the paint intact and do controls of paint that deteriorates,” she said.

But despite The City’s dated infrastructure, areas with lead exposure are being reduced, according to Cohn. A combination of Rec and Park maintenance efforts, new facilities that use less-hazardous paint and outreach has reduced the more than 600 reported sites with possible lead exposure in 2003 to about 265 last year, she said.

Bramlett — who started working with Rec and Park in February 1999 specifically so he could see the extinction of lead hazards in open spaces — estimated it could take another five years before all the toxic areas are tackled.

Because lead mimics calcium and iron, it bonds to blood and can later cause neurological or bone damage, Cohn said.

“Chronic lead exposure puts lead in bodies and is stored in bones and then released later in life,” she said.

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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Kamala Kelkar

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