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Great Falls Talks Turf

The Leo Santaballa turf-field debate continues.

What Makes a Synthetic Turf Field: The Logistics of Construction

Construction of synthetic turf fields involves the installation of "a drainage layer, a multi-layered backing system", and a layer of resilient "grass blades" that are "infilled with a granular filler to resemble natural turf." Most often (as is the case in all Fairfax County turf-fields), this "granular filler" comprises "granulated recycled tire rubber" to "provide the necessary stability, uniformity, and resiliency" (www.syntheticturfcouncil.org).

Although the cost of installing a turf-field at Leo Santaballa will be high, at approximately $850,000, the GFLA has developed a plan by which these funds will be "secured through three sources: a Fairfax County grant ($150,000); a short term construction-bridge loan from a community bank ($450,000); and an initial capital outlay to start the project ($250,000)".

In a Great Falls Land Use and Zoning Committee (LUZ) meeting in October of 2010, the Great Falls Lacrosse Association (GFLA) announced plans to install a synthetic turf-field at Leo Santaballa Park. Their proposal was initially met with a mixed response, as some community members applauded the operational benefits of turf-fields, while others raised concerns about the adverse impacts such a field could have on public health and the local environment. Nearly two years later, the installation of a turf field at Leo Santaballa remains a divisive and highly contended issue within the Great Falls Community, with each side voicing their opinions in both community and online forums, and circulating petitions in opposition or support of the installation.

When the GFLA first proposed the conversion of Leo Santaballa to a crumb rubber infill turf field, it was with the conviction that the field would become a "community asset," as more than 400 Great Falls families are involved in GFLA programs (www.greatfallslacrosse.com). The GFLA maintains this position, and has since emphasized that the current level of use of Leo Santaballa necessitates the installation of a turf field: Leo Santaballa is currently played on seven days a week in both Spring and Fall Seasons, and this type of "heavy traffic" causes fields to "become uneven with potholes or just bare clay that is indigenous to our area" says Richard Maresco of McLean.

SYNTHETIC TURF FIELDS, on the other hand, require no rest periods to prevent the formation of "unsafe, rock-hard, dirt fields" and can be played on for approximately "three times as many hours a year than natural grass fields"(www.syntheticturfcouncil.org). Moreover, these fields do not require the mowing, watering, or fertilizer treatments that are needed to maintain natural grass fields.

Yet, while the operational advantages of synthetic turf-fields are undeniable, many within the Great Falls community are worried that the disadvantages of synthetic turf fields are being overlooked.

The initial objection to the installation of a turf field at Leo Santaballa was on the grounds of potential environmental damage. "The substances used in the field, particularly the crumb rubber infill made of recycled tires, contain potentially hazardous chemicals and heavy metals that can leach into the water. These toxins will destroy our local aquatic ecosystem, possibly all the way from the Great Falls Library to the Potomac River" affirmed the Great Falls Clean Water Coaliton, a group dedicated to "stop[ping] construction at Leo Santobella Field." For residents of nearby Innsbruck Avenue, many of which are on a well-water system, the effects of contaminated runoff from the field were especially concerning; Leo Santaballa’s proximity to Innsbruck put it in a prime position to pollute Marmota Pond, a large pond located in the neighborhood, which homeowners were in the process of restoring.

More recently, those who oppose the conversion of Leo Santaballa have also cited potential threats to public health. Although the GFLA asserts that a turfed Leo Santaballa would "provide a safe playing surface for our children," "tires were never meant for coming in contact with humans," insists Dr. Karen Michels, a PhD neurobiologist and founder of the Safe and Healthy Fields Coalition.

Dr. Michels explains that tires, which are the primary component of crumb-rubber infill, are approximately 30-60 percent Carbon Black, a "carcinogenic nano-particle small enough to enter the body, the lungs, the cells, and cause inflammation." She says that particulates "are becoming more and more of a concern," as the chronic inflammation they can create "is a major cause of degenerative diseases" such as Diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. While some argue that there is no evidence to suggest that turf-fields put players at risk of developing such diseases, Dr. Michels asserts that this is due to a lack of long-term studies. "Never in human history have we concentrated this level of toxins in one place…and not only are we concentrating them in one place, we’re concentrating them in a place where children play," she warns.

OPPONENTS OF THE INSTALLATION argue that potential exposure to toxic nano-particles is not the only human-health concern associated with synthetic turf fields. Synthetic- turf runoff, which harms aquatic life, inevitably "impacts all living creatures…whether you’re a human or a fish, it doesn’t matter," says Stella Koch, Co-Chair of the Great Falls Environment Committee. Koch reasons that "anything in a tire that’s potentially bad, like zinc and heavy metals" could end up in the water supply, and "when those things get into the food chain, they affect everything." Synthetic turf fields also pose a more immediate threat to the health of those who play on them, as according to a 2008 Crumb Rubber Fact Sheet produced by the New York State Department of Health, "synthetic turf fields absorb heat," resulting in surface temperatures that "may contribute to heat stress."

In response to community concern, the GFLA continues to assert that synthetic turf is safe from both an environmental and a public health standpoint, referencing a 2011 Montgomery County Study to support their position. The study, which compared the "impacts of artificial turf vis-à-vis natural grass fields," found that environmental and human health risks associated with synthetic turf fields are not of "levels of concern that warrant avoidance of the construction of new artificial turf fields with crumb rubber infill." And synthetic turf fields do offer some eco-friendly statistics; according to the Synthetic Turf Council, "more than 2.2 billion gallons of water are conserved nationwide annually" by the use of turf-fields, and "using crumb material…for sports infill has afforded the opportunity to recycle 25 million used auto tires per year"(http://www.syntheticturfcouncil.org/).

For the time being, the GFLA has continued to garner support for the installation through their "I’m Turfing Leo" campaign, and developed a plan to fund the project. While the GFLA leadership believes "a permanent turf field in the heart of Great Falls" will provide "immeasurable benefits to the children of our community for years to come," those who oppose the installation, such as Stella Koch, say the risks of artificial turf are "enough to give a parent pause