Addressing urban heat and burn risk in Playgrounds

September 2, 2022 at 11:29 pm Leave a comment

High burn risk from playground materials with urban heat

“Unshaded synthetic turf is not a safe material to use in playgrounds in hot climates”, claim urban heat researchers based in Sydney in a new peer reviewed study.

Public playgrounds are important for our children to play and exercise. Increasing temperatures with climate change poses a health risk and, in particular, a burn risk to children due to surfaces heating up during hot weather, according to new research.

Researchers Sebastian Pfautsch, Agnieszka Wujeska-Klause, Judi Walters based in University of Western Sydney released the peer reviewed study: Outdoor playgrounds and climate change: Importance of surface materials and shade to extend play time and prevent burn injuries, published in the September 2022 issue of Building and Environment.

The research focussed on impact of urban heat on playground surfaces, and potential for burn injuries. Synthetic turf and other rubber/plastic surfaces were considered as part of this research. It has implications for urban heat of synthetic turf and other rubber and plastics surfaces and prevention of burn injuries, especially to children. This research should also help to inform Moreland Council investigation into Making Sports Playing surfaces sustainable.

The research provides two major recommendations for playgrounds:

  • Provide shade over the entire play area with consideration given to changes in daily and seasonal sun angles to ensure adequate cover when needed.
  • Choose floor surface materials to minimise heat absorption and radiation to reduce surface temperatures. When shade is provided, surface temperatures vary only marginally between material types and colour-tones.

The research recommended materials for areas where an impact-absorbing surface is needed (i.e., under a ‘fall zone’) should be given preference in the general order: TPO > TPV/EPDM > SBR. They argue that “unshaded synthetic turf is not a safe material to use in playgrounds in hot climates” based on their data for Sydney.

The research found that

  • Surface temperatures in sun-exposed playgrounds in Sydney are often hot enough to burn skin.
  • Dark-coloured wet pour rubber and synthetic turf were hottest; natural green turf was coolest.
  • Sun-exposed floor material surface temperatures were ST > SBR > EPDM and TPV > TPO > natural turf.
  • Surface temperature of floor materials depended on material type and colour-tone only in the sun.
  • Playgrounds should be shaded to protect children from burns from hot equipment and floor surfaces.

Acronym Note: surface temperatures hierarchy from hottest to coolest: Synthetic Turf > styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) > ethylene propylene diene polymer (EPDM) and thermoplastic vulcanizate (TPV) > thermoplastic polyolefin (TPO) > Natural Turf

Playground Health risk to children – burn injuries

According to the research paper burn injuries can occurr when skin contact is made with a surface at a temperature of 44C or greater. Both temperature of the material surface and how long the skin is in contact with the hot surface determines the severity of the burn injury.

“According to ISO 13732-1:2006, contact burns from hot plastic will occur within 3 seconds at 77 °C, within 5 seconds at 74 °C, and within 1 min at 60 °C. Uncoated metal surfaces will produce burns within 3 seconds at 60 °C, within 5 seconds at 57 °C, and within 1 min at 51 °C. Using these values, many of the maximum temperatures we measured (as well as the average temperature for the rubber dolphin) would be sufficient to cause skin contact burns.”

Pfautsch et al (2022)

The researchers highlight that the above thresholds are for adults and “data from scalds of children suggests it is probable that time-temperature thresholds for contact burns are significantly lower than those reported in the ISO standard.”

The urban heat focussed NGO Sweltering Cities highlighted in a Facebook post from the research that a rubber dolphin playground activity surface measured 88 degrees C on a hot Sydney day, posing a severe burn risk to children.

Temperature Comparison of different surfaces

There was a comparative assessment of the maximum temperature of different surfaces on a hot day, and also graphed the timeseries temperature of surfaces from 8am to 4.30pm.

Fig. 4. [2-column fit]. Surface temperature (Ts) of playground equipment (A, n = 3–13) and floor materials (B, n = 7–32) in the late morning through to the early afternoon on hot, sunny days in the summers of 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 when exposed to full sun at ten playgrounds in Sydney (NSW, Australia). Upper and lower ends of box plots indicate 75th and 25th percentiles respectively, the line inside the box shows the median, and the whiskers indicate minimum and maximum ranges. Blue dots indicate means, and red crosses the absolute maximum values recorded for each surface type.
Fig. 6. [2-column fit]. Maximum surface temperatures (Ts_max) of a selection of playground materials and colours measured in the sun from 08:00 to 16:30 h on the 9 February 2022. Data are absolute maximum surface temperatures (one value of 27,225 pixels in thermographs taken from each sample and time point) for blue rubber types (A), green rubber types (B), synthetic and natural turf types (C), and earth- and light-coloured rubber types (D). Solid lines indicate plain-coloured materials, and dashed lines mixed-coloured (speckled) materials.

Artificial turf within school environments

Previous research from University of Western Sydney on School Microclimates highlighted the health risks of using synthetic turf in school environments.

“Assessment of surface temperature of different materials in full sunshine revealed that artificial grass and bare soil were the hottest surfaces, regardless of ambient temperatures (Table 8). Sunlit artificial grass reached a mean temperature of 52°C during the normal summer day despite the air temperature being below 30°C. The surface temperature of artificial grass increased when ambient air temperatures rose and a maximum value of close to 70°C was measured for this material.” says the report.”

School Microclimates (September 2020)

One of the recommendations of the School Microclimates report is that “Use of artificial grass should be avoided or restricted to areas with zero exposure to direct sunshine.” (Pfautsch S., et al Sept 2020) This study built upon the work of an earlier report on Cool Schools (Madden et al 2018). It also is part of a collection of studies on impact of various surfaces and tree canopy on air temperature in Western Sydney (Pfautsch et al Oct 2020).

Measuring Moreland Playground and Sports surfaces

Climate Action Moreland conducted a temperature survey of a few Moreland playgrounds and sports surfaces in November 2020: Taking the temperature of Moreland Playgrounds and surfaces. The data was similar to the Sydney study and found that synthetic turf posed a burn risk on hot days and that certain playground rubber surfaces also posed a burn risk. While some playgrounds had shade provided, many still do not.

Moreland Council committed in August 2020 to the installation of shade sails over playgrounds as part of capital works improvements to municipal playgrounds. Approximately one playground will be upgraded with shade sail per year.

Climate change is causing temperatures to rise. We are likely to see more heat waves, starting earlier, lasting longer and of greater intensity, according to the Climate Council 2014 report on heatwaves. Once we could of expected a few extreme heat days during the peak of summer. Increasingly, we have extreme heat days in Spring, Summer and Autumn. Winter season is shrinking and Summer season is getting longer (Australia Institute 2021). We will likely experience 50 degree C days in the near future.


Entry filed under: health, heatwave, Moreland Council, news. Tags: , , , , , .

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