Artificial Turf Brings Risks, Challenges

Contributing Reporters on this Newscast:


Somerville, MA, July 15, 2014 – As city officials, coaches, aldermen and other stakeholders work to upgrade and expand Somerville’s recreational fields, artificial (or “synthetic”) turf is being proffered as one option.

Some of the city’s 18 playing fields are in bad shape, and almost all of them need to be repaired or renovated in one way or another. Gale Associates, consultant to the City, has made a number of recommendations, including the conversion of between two and five of the existing natural grass fields to artificial turf. (The city currently has two artificial turf fields).

Wendy Heiger-Bernays, Associate Professor of Environmental Health at Boston University, School of Public Health, has looked at the benefits and drawbacks of artificial turf, which is made with “grass” blades, rubber “infill” and then cushioning and drainage layers underneath.

“When we think about the two options [artificial turf vs. grass], there are benefits and risks on both sides,” the professor told Somerville Neighborhood News. “Neither of one is risk-free, and the decision is balancing a number of risks, with the costs of putting in the field, maintaining the field, and having the field available as frequently as people need.”

Heiger-Bernays listed the risks associated with artificial turf, such as the “off-gas” of what she called “volatile organics,” especially when turf heats up; water run-off from the fields, and “calculated lifetime cancer risk” due to the materials in the turf.  But she also noted that some studies – like one recently completed for the state of Connecticut [link below] – say the risks are acceptable.

Another professor, Guive Mirfendereski, who teaches International Law at Brandeis University, has been a vocal critic of artificial turf since 2008 when the City of Newton was exploring the issue. In addition to his work at Brandeis, he also edits a website that focuses on turf [link below].

A former Somerville resident, Mirfendereski recently returned to the city to visit Dilboy Field.

“You see, this is the crumb rubber, and you can also see as I pick some up, some the green fiber from the turf comes up,” Mirfendereski said as he cradled a handful of tiny, irregular black pellets the size of peppercorns.

Mirfendereski is concerned with the microscopic particles of “tire dust” that can slough off from the pellets and then be breathed in by athletes and others.

“Every time the ball hits the ground, a whole bunch of the stuff comes pumping up,” he said. “Every field has about 40,000 ground tires that provide the stability for the place.”

But Heiger-Bernays noted that natural grass is not so “natural,” and that it also creates risks.

“Those risks include the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Those have to be used if the field is going to be maintained as a green turf field,” she said. “We know that some risks are associated with many of those herbicides and pesticides. Those are neurological effects on young kids, developmental effects, and for some of them carcinogenic as well.”

Both Heiger-Bernays and Mirfendereski note that Somerville, its athletes, officials and others are facing tough choices.

“Many towns have struggled with this, because on one hand, we want our kids and adults to be outside playing, we also don’t want to use the pesticide, but we also want to make sure what we put in doesn’t have intended consequences,” Heiger-Bernays noted.

Mirfendereski comes down squarely on the side of natural turf because of many reasons, including the fact that artificial turf absorbs and gives off so much heat on sunny days, and because of what he and many others hold are the serious injuries caused by turf, which is a faster surface than grass.

But there is an additional question specific to Somerville, he noted.

“The biggest problem of Somerville is not really artificial turf or natural grass fields. The problem is, how much the green space and open space in the city would be going to put under development,” the former city resident said. “There needs to be a conversation among all the stakeholders and communities whether we can afford to get more green space and more common space and turn them into artificial turf fields with certain provisions about the play, time, access and so forth. That’s the big debate.”

This is the second of three reports from SNN on the recreation fields issue. For the first report, go to http://www.scatvsomerville.org/snn/playing-field-challenges/

Links:

Connecticut study – http://bit.ly/CTstudy

Website on artifical turf challenges and dangers – http://www.synturf.org