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Groundwork

Chemistry professor dedicates years to making local playground safer
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Dr Kind working in the lab

The Rainbow’s Edge playground was once a bustling hub of activity. Today it sits abandoned. No longer are happy squeals heard coming from children as they travel down the slide, and swings sit empty, swaying back and forth as if propelled by an unseen ghost.

Knowing what lies in the soil on the property of the Bridgewater playground, chemistry Professor Cielito “Tammy” King is satisfied to see it finally closed.

Back in 2004, based on a on a recommendation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, King learned manufacturers were voluntarily discontinuing the use of pressure-treated wood for residential uses.

Preserved with a pesticide that contains arsenic, pressure-treated lumber has been shown to leach this toxic chemical into the environment as the wood deteriorates.

With that in mind, King began to think about The Rainbow’s Edge playground where she sometimes brought her young son to play.

The playground piqued King’s interest because the structures, tables and fences were all made of pressure-treated wood.

Curious, she had her then-undergraduate research student Eric Curry, ’05, collect random soil samples for testing.

The initial findings showed there were three areas on the property with above-average arsenic levels, based on Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) standards.

King shared her findings with the town of Bridgewater, but initially received no response.

So, she spent her 2007 sabbatical collecting and testing over 100 soil samples from the playground for arsenic. Her findings supported the initial study.

Through the help of the administration of Bridgewater State President-Emeritus Dana Mohler-Faria, she worked with the town and organized a two-day affair where she and BSU students volunteered to seal the pressure-treated wood to avoid further avoid arsenic leaching into the soil.

“I just couldn’t sit back knowing there were toxins there,” King said.

Bridgewater eventually closed the playground to the public, where it still sits empty today.

The story doesn’t end there, however.

In 2017, the contaminated soil was still in the back of her mind, leaving King to seek funding to help her continue her work. She had recently been turned down for a National Science Foundation grant that would fund new instruments that, among other things, could help determine the type of arsenic in the playground’s soil.

In response to her application, NSF said one of the reasons she was denied is because she lacked a publication.

So, King set out to remedy this.

“Okay, I thought, I don’t have any publications, let me try to get published,” she said.

The determined professor collaborated with the geology department at Bridgewater, and with UMass-Amherst faculty, who allowed King to use their analytical instruments in exchange for co-authorship of the research paper.

During a second sabbatical in 2017, Dr. King worked at the playground site using the equipment from UMass, which allowed her to expand her research.

The results showed that during the previous 10 years, arsenic continued to accumulate in the soil at levels exceeding Massachusetts DEP standards. However, most of the arsenic was a less-toxic form and less likely to leach underground into the groundwater.

Armed with updated data, an article was composed. Much to King’s delight, “Long-term leaching of arsenic from pressure-treated playground structures in the Northeastern United States” will be published this March in Science of the Total Environment, a peer-reviewed journal.

Once published, King plans to reapply for the NSF grant.

“It feels surreal that it’s been accepted,” King said. “It’s been a journey… I’m proud of myself, but also very grateful for the support I received from my two sabbaticals, my department, undergraduate research students, BSU administrators and collaborators.”

Do you have a BSU story you’d like to share? Email stories@bridgew.edu.

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