The pros and cons of turf
Wilton Youth Football is in the final stages of seeking approval for the privately funded renovation of Middlebrook Field’s natural grass to artificial turf.
The Board of Selectmen and Inland Wetlands Commission have both approved the project.
The Planning and Zoning Commission held a public hearing for the project on June 22, and continued it to July 13. If the application is approved, the applicant’s final steps would be to acquire a building permit and submit a site application to the commission.
According to Casey Healy, attorney with Gregory and Adams, if approved, maintenance of the field would fall on the Parks and Recreation Department, and when the field needs to be replaced, a portion of the cost would be privately funded, but he did not specify what percentage.
Synthetic turf fields are made of plastic blades in-filled with pulverized rubber particles.
Eric Dean, president of Wilton Youth Football Inc., addressed with The Bulletin several dissenting opinions that have been voiced.
“The presence of zinc, which has been brought up by the public several times now,” said Dean, “is a naturally occurring substance in natural turf. By installing synthetic turf, we’d actually be reducing the amount of zinc in the Middlebrook School environment.”
“We’ve been approved by the Inland Wetlands Commission. They made us undergo a pollution renovation analysis conducted by an outside official, which we passed,” he added.
“All of our water will be treated, with levels of runoff less than normal,” continued Dean.
“We’re really overengineering this project,” he said. “It’s a shame that the public is making such a stink about this, because we’re spending all this money on extra studies that should really be going to the children.”
Among the reasons to consider using synthetic turf is that it can be used frequently and does not need pesticides, unlike natural grass, which will be torn up with frequent use and often requires applications of pesticide.
An article written by medical researcher Luz Claudio for the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2008 outlined several benefits of synthetic turf relative to its natural counterpart.
“One of the main arguments used in favor of synthetic turf is that it can be installed relatively quickly and, once functional, can be used almost continuously. In contrast, grass fields need time to take root and must be closed periodically for proper maintenance,” reads the article.
Claudio also cited reduction in allergy and asthma triggers due to the removal of natural pollens and lower costs for long-term maintenance.
According to the Synthetic Turf Council, “more than 50 independent and credible studies from groups such as the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and statewide governmental agencies such as the N.Y. State Department of Environmental Conservation, the N.Y. State Department of Health and the Calif. Environmental Protection Agency have validated the safety of synthetic turf.”
Rick Doyle, president of the council, noted that “in 2009, 5,200 synthetic turf sports fields in the U.S. saved over four billion gallons of water, and eliminated the use of millions of pounds of toxic pesticides and fertilizers.”
In a study prepared by the National Exposure Research Laboratory, Office of Research and Development, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it was found that volatile organic compound concentrations were below levels of concern in synthetic turf, comparable to ambient air concentration levels.
Over the course of 2008, consulting firm Milone & MacBroom studied three artificial turf fields and concluded that “metals will leach from the crumb rubber but in concentrations that are within ranges that could be expected to leach from native soil,” and that, “the use of crushed basaltic stone as a base material in the construction of the athletic fields has a neutralizing effect on precipitation.”
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, together with the New York Department of Health analyzed crumb rubber samples in 2009, and concluded that the “lead concentration... (was) well below the federal hazard standard for lead in soil.”
According to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, California Environmental Protection Agency, the MRSA infection — a potentially fatal strain of staph that cannot be treated by common antibiotics — has not been detected in any artificial turf field. A study by researchers at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences agrees this is not an area of concern. It says zinc and sulfur — found in the ground-up tires — are known to inhibit microbial growth. The study examined 20 fields in Pennsylvania and found no staph bacteria of any sort.
From a study published in 2004 spanning five years in which eight high schools were evaluated, the Human Performance Research Center at West Texas A&M University concluded that injuries are less common with artificial turf than with natural grass, citing 44% fewer concussions, 33.4% lower ACL trauma, 26.6 fewer severe injuries and 33.4% fewer ligament tears.
Montana State University arrived at similar conclusions in its three-year prospective study, published in 2010, in which 24 universities were evaluated, with 12% fewer concussions, 40% lower ACL trauma, 20.6% fewer severe injuries and 31.4% fewer ligament tears.
Toxicity, extreme heat, and cancer are among the negatives often raised in synthetic turf debates, and some say the currently available information in support of the safety of synthetic fields comes from biased sources.
According to the nonprofit organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the information by which the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) positioned itself behind the safety of synthetic turf was supplied by industry lobbyists.
In the words of the report:
- “CPSC possesses no independent information on toxicity of synthetic playgrounds. The only agency sampling has been for lead but it has taken no action when unsafe lead levels are found.”
- “After media reports of soccer goalies who have played for years on artificial turf contracting non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas at an alarming rate, CPSC was briefed on the issue by the vice president for marketing of a leading (turf) manufacturer.”
- “Industry representations to CPSC on voluntary standards to address chemical exposure of children in contact with these surfaces are exaggerated or untrue.”
It would seem that PEER blew the whistle on the CPSC, which reevaluated its 2008 statement that “young children are not at risk from exposure to lead in (turf) fields” earlier this year.
Rachel Stockman of the Channel 2 Action News team in Atlanta quoted CPSC Communications Director Scott Wolfson as having said, “Chairman Elliot Kaye has deep concerns with the (2008) press release and it is not the agency’s current position. What was done in 2008 was not good enough to make a claim either way as to the safety of those fields.”
Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization dedicated to researching environmental issues, said that lead is the least of players’ worries.
“The United States itself is still not tracking cancers among students who have played on synthetic turf. The U.S. government has still not tested synthetic turf for anything but lead, for which there is very little. We still have no government official asking for a congressional hearing on synthetic turf, and the government is still promoting synthetic turf with rubber tire infill at both the state and the federal levels.”
“Synthetic turf fields are loaded with carcinogens,” she continued, “so no one should be surprised at the growing number of cancers among student athletes. The surprise is that government refuses to act.”
“When will state and federal governments step in and protect our children?” she asked rhetorically.
Alderman wrote the Connecticut Department of Health in January about its position on the safety of artificial turf.
In conjunction with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the UConn Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, the Department of Health conducted an exposure and risk study in 2009, published in 2010 after review by the Connecticut Academy of Sciences and Engineering.
“The overall conclusion of the report is that use of outdoor artificial turf fields does not represent a significant health risk,” according to the department website.
“The study,” said Alderman in her letter, “had a few people run around a synthetic field for an hour or so and then they measured the outgassing. That in no way represents what two soccer teams or two football teams (22 players each) playing on synthetic turf for many hours a day, many days of the week, many weeks of the year experience in terms of their exposures to the toxic chemicals in these fields. That alone is a major limitation of the study.”
Associate Head Coach of Women’s Soccer at the University of Washington Amy Griffin began taking a tally of allegedly synthetic turf-related cancers after two of her players were diagnosed with lymphomas. Though unofficial and in no way all-inclusive, people have called her from across the nation, reporting a total of 95 cancers among student athletes who have played on artificial turf fields, 65 of them soccer goalkeepers who come in frequent contact with the particulates, with a breakdown of 40 lymphomas, 16 leukemias, seven sarcomas, seven brain, six thyroid and three testicular cancers, the difference being comprised of rare strains.
On a hot day in 2009, the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture recorded temperatures of a number of surfaces, which showed artificial turf to be 71° F hotter than the temperature of the air. The recordings were as follows.
- Air temperature — 94° F.
- Water temperature — 94° F.
- Bermuda grass temperature — 104° F.
- Sand temperature — 132° F.
- Asphalt temperature — 136° F.
- Synthetic turf temperature — 165° F.
Furthermore, the study pointed out that “synthetic fields do not require fertilizer or pesticides, which may make them seem environmentally friendly, but...:
- Both the synthetic turf and the rubber must be disposed of when the field reaches its life capacity of eight to 10 years. Natural grass fields require renovation less frequently with much-reduced renovation costs.
- Synthetic fields do not cool the environment like natural turf.
- Synthetic fields and natural grass fields have similar irrigation requirements since both need irrigation in warmer months and little to no irrigation in cooler months.
- Synthetic fields do not help to filter air and water pollutants.
- Synthetic fields do not fix CO2 (carbon dioxide) and release O2 (oxygen) as do natural grass fields.
- The net carbon loss for a synthetic field is high, whereas a natural grass field will have a net carbon gain despite the need for fertilizer and some pesticide inputs to maintain a natural grass.”