By Ted Hess-Mahan
Although synthetic in-filled turf has become a popular alternative to natural turf for communities desiring low-maintenance athletic fields that can endure intensive use, synthetic fields are increasingly regarded as potential environmental and health hazards, because of the materials they contain and the high temperatures they generate.
Various governmental agencies have found elevated lead levels in older synthetic fields, causing some communities to close fields or impose moratoriums on installing new ones. While newer turf products generally contain less lead, the crumb rubber “in-fill” made from recycled tires contains not only lead, but also known carcinogens, and phthalates, which can cause birth defects and affect the development of the male reproductive system. Synthetic fields also generate air temperatures exceeding 140 degrees on the playing field, may provide a medium for fungi, mold and bacteria, and have been blamed for transmitting MRSA, a treatment-resistant infection.
Moreover, every synthetic field will eventually require replacement in 10 to 15 years. Each full-sized field may contain well over a hundred tons of crumb rubber, synthetic turf, urethane coating, and other materials that cannot be recycled. Some of these materials are considered “special” or “hazardous” waste, which requires special handling. The cost of disposing of these materials may be in the six figure range per field, a fact which is frequently overlooked in the cost analysis.
It must be acknowledged that, although studies and research into the potential hazards associated with synthetic fields are ongoing, thus far, no definitive conclusions can be drawn. While a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) report found no harmful lead levels in some of the newer types of synthetic grass, it also recognized the potential for lead exposure from older, worn synthetic fields exposed to weather and sunlight, and called for “voluntary” industry standards to preclude the use of lead in future products. Conversely, although the crumb rubber in-fill also contains lead, as well as carcinogens and other harmful substances, there is no study conclusively proving actual harm or injury from exposure to these materials in synthetic fields—at least, not yet.
Not surprisingly, the synthetic turf industry dismisses many of these concerns as exaggerated or unproven, and cites the CPSC report as definitive proof that these fields are safe. The industry’s reliance on the CPSC report and the absence of studies offering definitive proof of hazards associated with synthetic fields provides cold comfort at best. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote The Silent Spring, in which she documented the harmful environmental impact of the pesticide DDT on wildlife, and accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation and public officials of accepting industry claims without question. The chemical industry viciously attacked her work, threatened her with lawsuits, and derided her as a "hysterical woman" unqualified to write such a book. It took ten years, but in 1972, despite intense opposition, DDT was finally banned in the United States and Carson’s book, once reviled, was seen as a groundbreaking achievement that helped launch the environmental movement.
When the Board of Aldermen recently approved funding to install synthetic fields with crumb rubber in-fill at Newton South High School, I was one of the very few who voted against it. While I support renovating the existing natural turf fields, which are a disgrace, I remain concerned about the potential hazards associated with synthetic fields. As I told my colleagues and the many parents, students and coaches assembled in City Hall that night, this was one vote about which I truly hope to be proven wrong.
That is not the end of the story, or at least, I hope not. In response to widespread demand, some manufacturers have developed “eco-safe” alternatives made with organic materials that are both recyclable and virtually free of lead, carcinogens and other harmful substances. Some of these products have been used successfully for years by professional soccer leagues in Europe and are now available in America. Recently, I filed a resolution asking the Mayor to pursue these alternatives, which has received broad support from my colleagues, most of whom voted for synthetic fields at Newton South. Through these efforts, I sincerely hope that Newton will “do the right thing” by installing synthetic fields containing the most environmentally responsible alternatives available.
Ted Hess Mahan is a Newton Alderman