Artificial turf is too risky for our kids and our finances

On July 10, 2015, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

shelton_webBy William C. Shelton

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)

The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team prosecuted a continuously improving campaign during this year’s World Cup, clinching the championship in a breathtaking game on Sunday.

News coverage made little mention of a lawsuit that forty players, led by Team USA’s highest all-time scorer Abbie Wambach, brought against FIFA last year. Their aim was to avoid the injuries that come from playing on artificial turn, a surface that Men’s World Cup teams do not play on.

Ultimately, they dropped the suit due to insufficient time to get a decision. But even before the first game, players began reporting health impacts from practicing on the Canadian venues’ artificial turf.

Australian player Michelle Heyman, for example, told her hometown newspaper about the condition of her feet: “The skin is all ripped off; it’s pretty disgusting. It’s like walking on hot coals with your skin ripping and slowly cracking, constantly.”

The controversy coincides with one in Somerville regarding whether the city should pay $500,000 to $800,000 to install artificial turf on a smaller athletic field like Lincoln Park’s, and $1 million on a full-sized field. Similar debates are happening in Medway, Marlborough, Methuen, Marshfield, Winchester, Concord, Swampscott, North Attleboro, Pittsfield, Newburyport, and across America.

Crumb rubber sprays when artificial turf is struck with a falling ball, foot, or human.

Crumb rubber sprays when artificial turf is struck with a falling ball, foot, or human.

New York City’s Parks Department and Los Angeles’ schools stopped using artificial turf in 2008 and 2009. The California Legislature is considering a prohibition on installing artificial turf in public and private schools and pubic parks until at least 2018.

Proponents argue that the inevitable overuse of Somerville’s few fields makes artificial turf the logical choice. They believe that over its lifetime it will provide a better playing surface and wear better, at a lower cost.

I’m not someone who becomes enamored with a product just because it’s “natural.” I believe that there are applications in which artificial turf is the best choice. But after reviewing evidence presented by the industry, its advocates, and its opponents, I’m persuaded that it’s the wrong choice for Somerville.

This is a conversation that we should have as a community, and mine is but one opinion. So I encourage comments from those who favor artificial turf.


Health Concerns

The few published scientific papers that have studied whether injuries are more common on third-generation synthetic turf than on natural grass have not found a significant difference. However, in 2010 the NFL’s Injury and Safety Panel found a higher incidence of “certain serious knee and ankle injuries” on artificial turf.

And an NFL players survey found that 82% believe playing on artificial turf contributes to more injuries, 89% said that it causes more soreness and fatigue, and 90% said that it’s more likely to shorten their careers.

More troubling is the heat island effect. A University of Nevada study found artificial-turf surface temperatures to be 69°F higher than those of grass and 62°F higher than air temperature, maxing out at 169°F. The highest temperature considered safe for trained athletes is 122°F. Las Vegas’ summer is much hotter than Somerville’s, but UNLV conducted the study during fall and winter months.

Most troubling are the potential health impacts of 25,000 to 40,000 rubber tires that are ground up and inserted under and between an artificial turf field’s plastic fibers. The particles emit gases and spray into the air when struck by a ball or falling body. Players leave the field with crumb rubber in their clothes, shoes, hair, mouths, and noses.

Yale University researchers have found 96 chemicals in artificial turf. Half have never been assessed for toxicity. Of the other half, 20% are “probably carcinogens;” 24%, respiratory irritants; 37%, skin irritants, and 27% eye irritants.

Principal Investigator Professor Gaboury Benoit said, “Not surprisingly, the shredded tires contain a veritable witches brew of toxic substances. It seems irresponsible to market a hazardous waste as a consumer product.”

The Synthetic Turf Council has posted 14 studies on its website, offered as proof of its product’s safety. But Mount Sinai Hospital’s Professor of Pediatrics and Preventative Medicine Dr. Joel Forman explains that “None of [the studies] are long term, they rarely involve young children.”

His colleague Dr. Philip Landrigan, a toxic substances expert, stated that, “gifted athletes are on the soccer field almost every day. That sort of cumulative exposure results in a buildup in their body of these toxic chemicals, and can result in a buildup of cellular damage that can then result in disease years or decades later.”

Six years ago the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Products Safety Commission pronounced artificial turf as safe with specific reference to lead content. Since then the EPA and the CPSC have both backed away from earlier safety pronouncements, stating, as Dr. Forman does, that more studies are needed.

Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence is mounting. Amy Griffen is a University of Washington Soccer Coach. When two of her goalies underwent chemotherapy for lymphoma, she began chronicling cases of student athletes who were diagnosed with cancer after long-term exposure to artificial turf. She is up to 153.


Cost Concerns

Public officials are often drawn to artificial turf because they imagine that despite its enormous up-front costs, long-term maintenance will be minimal. But professional groundskeepers say that maintenance costs are about the same as with grass. They report that effective artificial turf maintenance is demanding and costly.

It must be regularly vacuumed to remove dust, dirt, pollen, skin cells, and a host of other debris. It must be regularly “groomed” with a special tool to insure that the fibers remain vertical. If they don’t, they cannot provide traction, block drainage, and absorb UV rays, which hasten their disintegration. Weeds that grow through the turf must be removed.

Infill becomes compacted and must be raked, as well as regularly cleaned out with water or compressed air. Worn surfaces and displaced infill must be replaced. Tears must be promptly repaired if the municipality is to avoid liability. Failing to do any of the foregoing voids the turf’s warranty, which is typically only eight years.

A former FIFA employee and twenty-year grounds-keeping veteran explained to me that indigenous soil contains microorganisms that break down impurities in grass. Since these microorganisms cannot do their work on the bodily fluids, animal feces, and food products deposited on artificial turf, it must be regularly disinfected.

Without proper maintenance, artificial turf may remain green and attractive to the eye, but it quickly becomes a hazardous ineffective playing surface. It’s hard to imagine that Somerville’s longstanding pattern of field overuse and under-maintenance would abruptly change after artificial turf installation, particularly since the costly installation’s rationale is based on the misconception that it requires less maintenance while enduring greater use.

In articles like “How Taxpayers Get Fooled on the Cost of an Artificial Turf Field” and “Buyers Remorse Surfacing Over Artificial Turf Fields,” Forbes journalist Mike Ozanian is documenting communities that lived to regret the artificial-turf-costs-less calculation.

Preparing this column, I encountered a tendency to blame the Department of Public Works for the sorry state of our playing fields. In fact, the problem begins with Somerville’s having the lowest proportion of usable open space in Massachusetts and enormous demand for its use.

The city does not charge sports groups sufficient fees, nor budget sufficient tax revenues, to pay for adequate maintenance. Any solution must address the root causes of insufficient field space and inadequate maintenance funding.

Space constraints do not permit me to review artificial turf’s many environmental concerns. But they are well worth considering.

For me, the most persuasive argument against artificial turf is its potential health impacts on developing bodies. The industry’s claims that its product has been “proven” safe ring hollow when I consider that the epidemiological studies that would constitute such proof have not been performed. Putting kids on artificial turf before such proof is established is gambling with their lives.

Coach Amy Griffen put it this way: “In large form [tires are] hazardous waste. And in crumb form it’s OK for kids?”



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