WASHINGTON (AP) â€” Christine Cichello's 7-year-old son, Sam, ran over and told her what had just happened: He was hanging from the playground's elevated rings when another boy jumped off a nearby platform and grabbed him by the legs. Sam hit the ground face-first.
``He said, 'Mom, I hit my face really hard.' He said he was dizzy, and within five minutes, he was unconscious,'' the Milton, Mass., mother recalled earlier this week.
Sam died that evening last October at Children's Hospital in Boston, one of 17 children who die annually from injuries sustained on playgrounds, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
A report released Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the Consumer Federation of America says hard playground surfaces, equipment that is too high, openings that can entrap children, and swings that are too close together pose serious threats at a majority of the nation's public playgrounds.
In the report, titled ``Playing It Safe,'' researchers surveyed 1,024 public school, municipal and federal playgrounds in 27 states and the District of Columbia between March and May. They found 80 percent had surfaces that were too hard, such as concrete, asphalt, or packed dirt, and nearly half had climbing equipment that was too high â€” more than 6 feet tall.
``Playgrounds can be wonderful places for children to have fun and face new challenges, but far too many playgrounds contain dangers that can injure and even kill,'' said Rachel Weintraub, staff attorney for U.S. PIRG and co-author of the report.
Government figures show that 170,100 children require hospital emergency room treatment each year because of playground accidents. Weintraub noted that 75 percent of those injuries are caused by falls.
The researchers also found:
27 percent of swings have spacing hazards, positioning them too close to each other or to other objects.
â€”31 percent of slides and climbing equipment have an inadequate ``fall zone'' because there are obstacles where a child might fall.
â€”34 percent have openings in the equipment where a child's head could become entrapped.
â€”38 percent have small gaps, hooks or other protrusions where clothing, particularly drawstrings, could become entangled.
â€”47 percent have peeling, chipped or cracking paint.
This was the fifth biannual survey conducted by U.S. PIRG and CFA during the last 10 years. The survey showed some improvements as older playground equipment is gradually being replaced. For example, this year, 80 percent of playgrounds had surfaces that were too hard, compared with 87 percent in 1998.
Another survey released in April and conducted by The National Program for Playground Safety at the University of Northern Iowa examined 3,052 childcare, school and city parks and found that 46 percent had relatively new and appropriate equipment.
``We really believe that the playground companies are doing a better job of making equipment safe, and we believe the surface manufacturers are building more appropriate surfaces,'' said program director Donna Thompson.
However, she said, people need to do a better job of supervising children and ensuring that smaller children and larger children have separate play areas with age-appropriate equipment.
Sam's mother agreed. Cichello cautioned that supervision and limiting the number of children playing together can be just as important as equipment safety.
In fact, just a week before Sam's fall at the Tucker School, school officials had resurfaced the playground with wood chips â€” a covering considered safe by the CPSC.
``It was such a freak thing,'' Cichello said. ``Of course, you run through things in your mind, 'If only I have done this or done that.' I guess I wish I'd monitored the games they were playing. On the playground you think they're safe, but sometimes I wonder if there are just too many kids.''
On the Net: U.S. PIRG report: http://pirg.org/consumer/playground2000/
Consumer Federation of America: http://www.consumerfed.org