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Column: Examining Artificial Turf’s Environmental Issues

Representatives of the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition spoke to the WMCCA about the health and environmental issues related to artificial turf at the December general meeting. Kathy Michels, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health, became involved when her child’s school, Montgomery Blair High School, became one of the region’s first schools to switch from natural grass to artificial turf. She, along with Bailey Condrey, an independent contractor who formerly advised the plastics industry, addressed the gathering. In the WMCCA December newsletter, President Shawn Justement discussed the ramifications of making the switch to artificial turf, a trend that seems to be sweeping across Montgomery County public and private high schools.

Justement said the systems being installed use a polyethylene fiber carpet with a crumb rubber infill. Currently there is debate about the safety of these fields, with concerns ranging from increased injuries, off-gassing of volatile organic compounds, and leaching of hazardous chemicals into storm water. WMCCA particularly questions the impact of runoff from these fields on our streams and waterways.

The artificial turf industry has noted the advantages of its product. Artificial turf doesn’t need the fertilizers, pesticides, regular irrigation and frequent mowing of a grass field. However, the surface has its own maintenance requirements — for sweeping, grooming, disinfecting and repair.

Advocates note that the crumb rubber infill is made from used tires, thus providing a good way to recycle the material. As anyone who has kids playing on these fields can attest, the crumb rubber gets everywhere, including inside shoes and socks. New crumb infill must be added from time to time, and after a useful lifespan of eight to 10 years, the artificial turf needs to be replaced, with the old carpet and 120 tons of crumb infill ending up in landfill. Justement points out that ironically, used tires are not allowed in landfills, but crumb rubber from used artificial turf is allowed.

Artificial turf becomes so hot that fields are watered down to cool them, and turf fields are frequently watered to improve the playing surface, raising the question, WMCCA wonders what is leaching off these fields after watering or rainfall?

One of the most comprehensive studies on the environmental impact of artificial turf was done by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. The report showed that leachate from artificial turf stormwater runoff contains zinc, manganese and chromium at levels toxic to aquatic organisms, and concluded that there is a potential risk to surface waters. Recommendation: “stormwater runoff from artificial turf fields that is discharged to surface waters be handled in a manner that incorporates best management practices, such as stormwater treatment wetlands, wet ponds, infiltration structures, compost filters, sand filters or biofiltration structures.”

The county’s report endorsing artificial turf, “A Review of Benefits and Issues Associated with Natural Grass and Artificial Turf Rectangular Stadium Fields” (September 2011), notes that the capacity of artificial turf fields for more playing hours allows community use, thus generating revenue that offsets the higher cost. Outside funding is not always stable, and, arguably, fees for community use are not commensurate with the true cost of field use.

The cost of installing an artificial turf field and its subsequent disposal is more than the cost of a top-of-the-line grass field, even when maintenance and re-sodding is included, and there have been advancements in organic turf care that reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides. For Montgomery County, which prides itself on being environmentally sensitive, a greener approach to playing fields might be the better option.

Wootton High School is the latest county high school to “go plastic” by replacing the natural grass in its sports stadium with artificial turf. The county’s Board of Education recently voted in favor of the move, despite significant environmental, health and financial concerns raised by community activists, including the group, Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition. The Coalition made its case to U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, (D-Md.), on the same day of the WMCCA general meeting, and reported that Van Hollen has agreed to write a letter to the Consumer Product Safey Commission asking why artificial turf is not more closely regulated by the Commission, especially since the makers of synthetic turf often use children in their marketing campaigns.

Promoters of artificial turf fields like to begin their polished presentations by saying something like, “We all prefer grass as a playing surface, but ...” with a discussion of grass fields phrased in terms of the high cost of maintenance and the wet and muddy fields that mean less playing time for kids. “We’d all love to have a well-maintained grass field,” the sales pitch goes, “But because that is not possible, or it’s too expensive, turf is the best choice.”

For the turf-versus-grass debate to be fair, one needs to compare a well-maintained grass field with an artificial turf field, particularly where a new surface is being compared to the run-down and ill-maintained grass field that it is intended to replace. While a grass field is more expensive to maintain, the 20-year cost of installing artificial turf, periodically refreshing the infill, and replacing the turf itself is $2.5 million.

Green spaces play an important role in protecting water resources by trapping and removing pollutants in stormwater runoff. On the health front, artificial turf is manufactured with a number of chemical substances that may include black carbon, a known carcinogen. Under extreme heat, those particles break down into a powdery substance that can get into the players’ jerseys, and even be ingested. The jury is still out on just how harmful those chemicals can be, but some health professionals have weighed in against artificial turf.