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Unsafe At Home

Backyard play sets more deadly than public ones, government study says

THURSDAY, Aug. 2, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Think your backyard playground's safe?

A new government report shows that 70 percent of the children who died on America's playgrounds between 1990 and 2000 were killed on backyard equipment, not public equipment.

The bulk of those deaths -- almost 75 percent of the 150 victims -- involved children who strangled on stray ropes, cords, rope swings or other tethers, officials say, though deaths also occurred because the surfaces beneath the play sets were inadequately padded.

"Children should be out on the playground where they belong, not in the hospital emergency room," Ann Brown, chairwoman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which issued the report, says in a statement. "We believe that by sharing our simple safety tips with parents, home playgrounds can be a place where kids have fun and play safely."

Despite their innocuous name, playgrounds are a leading site of childhood injuries, the agency says. There were 200,000 in 1999 alone, and three-quarters of those incidents happened in public facilities. But of the 47,000 injuries involving backyard equipment, 40 percent occurred among children under age 5. That's almost double the rate of the same-age injuries at public playgrounds, the report found.

Ken Giles, a CPSC spokesman, says the agency is working with the playground equipment industry to secure dangling ropes, lines and other hazards that pose a strangulation threat.

The CPSC is also urging parents to make sure that backyard play sets have at least nine inches of wood chips, sand or other energy-absorbing filler under them to break the inevitable falls. Only 9 percent of backyard playgrounds in the latest study had such padding.

"You don't find public playgrounds built over asphalt, concrete or hard-packed dirt, but in the backyard you do," Giles says.

The agency considers grass the equivalent of hard ground. "It's not good enough," Giles says.

A recent study found that more children under age 20 are seriously hurt falling off playground equipment than are injured in either car wrecks or biking accidents.

"There's been a larger adherence to making playgrounds both fun and safe, and now we need to take that same energy and focus and put it on backyard playgrounds," says Darell Hammond, the founder of KaBOOM!, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization that helps promote play safety.

Although the CPSC report is the first time the agency has looked at backyard playground safety, industry observers say they've known for some time that the equipment can be dangerous.

"We do know that more deaths occur there than on public-use playgrounds," says Donna Thompson, director of the National Program for Playground Safety in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Poor surfacing beneath gear is a major problem, adds Thompson, whose group recommends 12 inches of protective surfacing beneath backyard equipment.

Moreover, she adds, parents don't maintain the shock-absorbing material as well as a parks department, and they also may be less vigilant about safety when their children are playing at home.

"Parents figure they can send their kids outside and the playground equipment is going to supervise the children, and that's not the case," Thompson says.

What To Do

If you have a backyard playground, make sure you've got at least nine inches of protective surfacing underneath the equipment, and extend it at least six feet around the apparatus. For swing sets, put padding out twice as high as the crossbar.

Never allow loose ropes, pet leashes or other leads to dangle from the equipment. Tie down tire swings or remove them, CPSC's Giles says.

And most important, Thompson says, be sure to watch your children whenever they're playing on a backyard gym.

For more safety tips, and to learn more about the latest report, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which also has a safety checklist for public playgrounds for parents, or KaBoom!.

You can also check out the National Program for Playground Safety or the National Playground Safety Institute.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ken Giles, spokesman, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Washington, D.C.; Darell Hammond, founder, KaBOOM!, Washington, D.C.; Donna Thompson, director, National Program for Playground Safety, Cedar Falls, Iowa; Consumer Product Safety Commission report
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