Environmental group highlights possible hazards of turf fields as Norwalk, Wilton consider projects

NORWALK — As Norwalk and Wilton consider installing new turf fields, the Norwalk River Watershed Association hosted a webinar that raised questions about the health, safety and long-term environmental impact of the projects.

"The Hazards of Artificial Turf" highlighted the growing concerns over PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — which are widely used and long-lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The webinar was held March 1 by the Norwalk River Watershed Association, a nonprofit that works to protect water quality and wildlife habitats in the watershed.

Several officials — including Wilton First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice and Michael Conklin, Wilton's director of environmental affairs — were among the 75 viewers listening in on the webinar. It was held as the town of Wilton is drawing up plans for a new turf field, lighting and seasonal bubble on the state-owned section of Allen's Meadow on Danbury Road and as Norwalk is looking at turf upgrades at five parks and playgrounds.

During the webinar, Kyla Bennett, director of science policy with the Maryland-based nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the presence of PFAS is inevitable when it comes to turf fields. 

"Nobody is going to be able to provide you a PFAS-free field," said Bennett, who has a doctorate in ecology as well as a law degree.

Bennett explained that although the industry is moving away from the use of crumb rubber "fill" in turf fields in exchange for other substances, the artificial fields — including the plastic grass blades that constitute the "carpet" of the playing area — usually contain PFAS.

"For years we were focused on the crumb rubber in-fill, which was really bad ... (but) in-fill is really the least of our worries," Bennett said.

In a statement at the town website, Vanderslice, said the town is investigating the NRWA’s concerns about PFAS for the Allen's Meadow project.  

The town does not install crumb rubber in-fill in its turf fields, she said. The organic coconut in-fill at Wilton High's stadium and the Lilly turf fields retains moisture and is often cooling, according to Vanderslice.   

At a Board of Selectmen meeting, DPW Director/Town Engineer Frank Smeriglio will present the watershed drainage systems for the area and Conklin will share the results of the expanded watershed testing, she said.  

Scientific studies have found that exposure to some PFAS may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals, the EPA said. There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, which are found in many consumer, commercial, and industrial products.

Joined on the webinar by Sarah Evans, a professor of environmental medicine and public health with Mount Sinai Health System, Bennett explained that even the tiniest amounts of PFAS can be a concern. 

"There is virtually no safe level of these in drinking water," she said, with 4 parts per trillion considered dangerous.

"These tiny, tiny amounts are toxic and can give you cancer," she said.

Research is only beginning 

Research into PFAS is in its infancy, Evans and Bennett said. Only about 29 of the 14,000 PFAS have been studied, while legislation addresses a couple of them, they said.

"They will tell you that the PFAS in their turf is a safe PFAS," Bennett said. "There is no such thing as a safe PFAS."

Evans noted that many chronic diseases are on the rise, which she said is likely connected to environmental factors.

"We're only just beginning, I think, to graze the surface of understanding human exposures," she said, with long-term, low-level exposure a big question mark, especially among children.

"There are thousands of these chemicals in the universe that now contaminate our drinking water, our waterways, our food supplies and the products that we use," she said.

Scientists are only now beginning to understand how quickly the PFAS leech off of turf fields, Bennett said, with studies still in their infancy.

"We have anecdotal information ... but it's very hard to prove," she said.

The EPA has been increasing its attention in recent years, she said, and Connecticut formed a PFAS task force in 2019.

Other dangers

Evans pointed out other dangers with turf fields, including excessive heat. Surface temperatures on turf fields increase dramatically in hot weather, akin to asphalt rooftops in summer, she said.

"We know that heat illness is the No. 1 cause of death and disability in high school athletes," Evans said.

Watering can cool the fields, Bennett said, but this only lasts for about 20 minutes before it gets hot again.

"We've had temperatures as high as 180 degrees on 80-something-degree days," she said. "It can get quite hot."

Turf fields also play an adverse role in climate change, Bennett said, heating the air and emitting greenhouse gases throughout their lifespans, while natural grass absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen.

Also, the material in turf fields cannot be recycled, Bennett said. She said she has seen mountains of materials that were once turf fields in several places around the U.S.

"There is not any factory in the U.S. that recycles artificial turf," she said. "The environmental damage will be felt for decades to come."

NRWA board member Cathy Smith of Wilton noted the presence of several local officials from Norwalk and Wilton on the webinar.

"We really hope that this evening's presentation will contribute to a deeper understanding of what it means to install artificial turf," Smith said.

"It seems that artificial turf is continuing to gain a lot of ground, so to speak, even while the science is indicating more and more that we should be moving in the complete opposite direction," she said. 


The webinar can be watched at the NRWA's website at https://norwalkriver.org/.