A controversy is brewing throughout the state, and even in Europe, over the use of artificial turf fields. There are 150 such fields that Landtech has already sold on Long Island, including one recently installed on Campus Drive, with private money raised by local volunteers.
The concerns expressed by environmentalists have to do with the fact that the artificial fields are constructed using up to ten tons of ground-up used tires, or crumb rubber, as in-fill. Grassroots Executive Director Patti Wood explains, "Tires typically contain toxic substances which prohibit their disposal in landfills and oceans, so it is reasonable to question whether this material is safe for use on fields where children play."
Elaborating, Ms. Wood reports that recent studies conducted in Connecticut and New York have confirmed the presence of hazardous substances on existing fields, many at levels exceeding current allowable NYS Department of Environmental Conservation limits. She adds that among the toxins identified were the metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead and zinc, as well as other chemicals, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and phthalates.
Ms. Wood notes that while manufacturers claim the fields are safe, the known potential health effects of exposure to these chemicals, including immune system damage, cancer and endocrine disruption, should be the first consideration when proposing a field installation. "Without long-term field testing, no one is in a position to say the exposure is harmless."
Another problem is that artificial turf can reach dangerously high temperatures on hot days and serious and unusual injuries and infections have been documented, according to Ms. Wood.
She also notes that the cleaning of synthetic turf requires harsh chemicals and body fluid spills are particularly difficult to handle.
For school age children, the situation is even more complicated as Ms. Woods points out: "We know that certain periods of human development, particularly times of rapid cell proliferation (such as puberty) provide prime opportunities for chemical interference with normal development. We know that the latency periods for many types of disease (including cancer) can be years, so that the effects of a particular exposure will not be immediately evident."
Continuing she says, "We know that inhalation is a primary route of exposure, and that athletes engaged in rigorous activities are inhaling air at an increased rate. We know that chronic, low-level exposures to environmental chemicals are more dangerous than previously believed."
But, she adds. "What we don't know- and may never know - is what effect the exposure to these chemicals will have on any individual child. Many scientists believe that genetic susceptibility plays a role in the development of disease, so that would mean not every child exposed would be equally affected."
An extensive report on synthetic turf was issued last week by RAMP, a Rochester-based consumer protection organization. The group took clean, unused samples of fill from five synthetic turf suppliers. Readers interested in the detailed findings of the RAMP report can go to www.albany.edu/ihe, then click on projects. Synthetic turfs is the first item.
The study concluded the following:
"Many questions remain unanswered regarding whether or not there are potential health or ecological hazards that can result from installations of synthetic playing fields. Due to the unresolved public health and environmental issues, it is prudent public health policy to avoid installation of new synthetic turf fields until the health and environmental issues can be fully evaluated."
The government has now responded to the concerns. A bill was introduced on Oct. 23 to the New York State Assembly calling for a moratorium on new synthetic turf installations pending a careful review of information regarding potential human health implications and an evaluation of potential impacts.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Geoffrey Gordon reports that the school district on its own hired an environmental consultant, J. C. Broderick & Associates, Inc. of Saint James, NY, to test the Campus Drive artificial turf field. The consultant determined that there was no evidence presented that poses any danger to a student.
Specifically, Broderick examined the carcinogen PAH (polycyclic hydrocarbons) that News 12 reported were "in excess of state safety levels." The report does not dispute that the chemicals identified in News 12's sample are typically present within the matrix of the rubber used to make synthetic fields. However, the study focused on the potential routes of exposure for users (athletes, coaches) to be exposed to these chemicals while using the athletic field.
The study concluded that the potential for exposure to PAHs at the field appears to be minimal or insignificant. It recommended that the school should emphasize good hygiene practices (e.g. washing hands, showering, routine cleaning of uniforms, etc.) by athletes using the field.
Also in the event that there is a school function during which younger children with the significant potential to put the synthetic turf, or pieces of rubber in their mouth exists, adult supervision should be present.
Commenting further on the situation Dr. Gordon said, "...(it) warrants further study, as many of the research reports have indicated. Both the BOE and school administration are certainly on high alert should there be any developments that warrant action."
Ken Marlborough, athletic director for the Port Washington schools, told Channel 12 News that Landtech assured him the artificial turf it installed was safe. Mr. Marlborough pointed out that the appeal of the $750,000 surface is its convenience. "The real benefit I think is that (it) is truly an all-weather surface. Even in a heavy downpour, within a matter of minutes, the field drains and can be ready to play on almost immediately."
A Landtech spokesman also told Channel 12 News that studies show the tire crumbs are not harmful.
While recognizing the upside of synthetic playing fields, Ms.Wood says, "As with many things that seem almost too good to be true, we jump on new technologies without looking at their potential downside. Certainly this is true of synthetic turf fields and I applaud New York State for proposing a moratorium on new field construction until we can assure both school administrators and parents that they are safe for our children to play on."
She also commented, "Since some of the chemicals contained in the crumb rubber may outgas more readily in warm weather, we have a window to research the option of replacing the rubber with a non-toxic material."