|A soccer game on the turf field at Pine Ridge Park in Annandale.|
Every day, kids and adults throughout Northern Virginia play soccer, football, and lacrosse on athletic fields with artificial turf. Yet few people are aware of the toxic materials in these fields.
A group of parents, several of whom are scientists, have formed the Safe and Healthy Fields Coalition to spread the word about the mounting evidence of the health risks in these fields and are urging the Fairfax County to stop putting them in, at least until more detailed studies are carried out.Despite the concerns, sports leagues, school athletic directors, and booster clubs are calling for more synthetic turf fields. The main advantage of turf fields is the opportunity for more playing time. Grass fields can be out of commission for days after a heavy rain, while turf fields, due to better drainage, can be used immediately.
There are more than 40 turf fields in Fairfax County, including Mason District Park and Pine Ridge Park in Annandale. The park bond on the Nov. 6 ballot would fund at least five more, including another one at Pine Ridge.
There are studies showing the fields are safe, but they were funded by the industry. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency that failed to find turf fields hazardous was inadequate, says Amy Stephan of Great Falls, a founding member of the Safe and Health Fields Coalition. “They didn’t look at the whole toxicological picture,” she says.
Among studies that did find cause for concern is a research report by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station that identified many toxic chemicals in tires, including butylated hydroxyanisole and benzene, which are recognized carcinogens.
There is a lot more information about the hazards in synthetic turf in a video, featuring interviews with scientists, and on this website. One problem cited by researchers: Tiny particles of tire crumbs can be ingested or inhaled.
A study by Environment and Human Health concluded, “There is enough information now concerning the potential health effects from chemicals emanating from rubber tire crumbs to place a moratorium on installing any new fields or playgrounds that use ground-up rubber tires until additional research is undertaken.”
Another problem with the fields is they get much hotter than grass or even asphalt. The highest temperature ever recorded on a turf field on a hot, sunny day was 190 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to a maximum of 112 degrees on a grass field.
On a day when the outdoor temperature was 84 degrees, Stephan recorded a temperature of 164 degrees on a turf field where her son’s football team was practicing. “Three or four kids were throwing up on the side of the field, but none of the coaches stopped the practice and none of the parents complained,” she says.
A group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has urged the Consumer Product Safety Commission to issue heat guidelines to protect children and athletes from overly hot turf fields.
|A turf field at Mason District Park.|
Among the hazards cited by PEER are “off-gassing of dangerous vapors from carbon black, lead, mercury, and an array of other toxins,” as well as heat stroke and blistering, even through shoes. “As fields heat, noxious materials can be absorbed in gases that can become 10 to 20 times more toxic than the materials themselves,” the group states.
“We think it’s worse than asbestos,” Stephan says. “Grass is safer on every level, as long as fertilizers are applied properly.”
There is some indication county officials are beginning to take notice, although no one has gone so far as to call for a moratorium on new turf fields.
At the Sept. 12 meeting of the Fairfax County Park Authority Board, Frank Vajda (Mason) requested more information about the environmental impact of turf fields. At-large member Marie Reinsdorf called for an evaluation of the benefits and potential hazards of turf fields. She suggested the county follow the lead of the New York City Health Department, which outlines on its website the concerns raised about turf fields and what has been done to monitor them and reduce the hazards.
At a public comment meeting on the upcoming park bond, several people spoke out against turf fields, citing the health dangers from tire crumbs. Similar comments were submitted via email to the Park Authority.
Fairfax County has convened a Turf Task Force to come up with a better, more equitable policy for funding new turf fields and maintaining and replacing existing ones—but the group has not been charged with addressing health issues.
“I haven’t seen any studies showing toxic chemicals on the fields or any studies that show these fields are bad,” says task force member Harold Leff, chairman of the Fairfax County Athletic Council. “If there are health issues, we would certainly look into it.”
The Turf Task Force also includes representatives from the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services (NCS), Fairfax County Public Schools, the Park Authority, and the Board of Supervisors.
Currently, funding comes from the “the 550 fund” (the $5.50 fee collected from each player on a team), booster clubs, athletic leagues, the park authority, and the county. Athletic clubs that pay for turf fields are required to sign an agreement with the county allowing other groups to use them.
Turf fields cost $800,000 on average and last about eight to 12 years, says Chris Leonard, director of NCS, which is in charge of scheduling community use on turf fields in county parks and on public school grounds.
They are less costly to maintain than grass fields, but not by much. Although turf fields don’t have to be mowed or watered, they do have to be raked and vacuumed, Leff says. “The difference in maintenance costs is negligible. I don’t think we’re saving a whole lot of money. We are saving a lot of down time.”
Because turf fields have better drainage, they can provide up to 63 percent more playing time than grass fields, which can’t be used until they dry out, he says. That’s important because “there’s a finite amount of land in the county,” he says. “We’re running out of space for new fields, and we can get a lot more usable time on turf fields.”