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Artificial Turf: Debate Continues Over Safety

Artificial turf fields, usually constructed of polyethylene plastic grass and an in-fill base of "crumb rubber" made from ground-up recycled tires (as many as 10,000 in a single field), are growing in popularity (according to a spokesperson for the Synthetic Turf Council in Atlanta about 900 new synthetic turf fields went installed at schools nationwide in 2008).

At the same time, a debate is heating up about possible health risks, with more state and local governments getting involved.

The following developments took place over the past year in this ongoing debate:

  • In 2008, the State of Connecticut agreed to conduct a peer-reviewed study of the health and environmental impacts of synthetic turf to determine whether the artificial turf poses any serious health or environmental hazards. It is hoped that the comprehensive first-of-its-kind study, which will be conducted jointly by the state Departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the University of Connecticut Health Center, will shed greater light on an issue about which knowledge is limited. In the meantime, two Connecticut legislators have announced that they will introduce legislation to impose a moratorium on the installation or state funding of synthetic turf fields until the study is completed, which is expected to be in 2010.
  • In the summer of 2008, New Jersey state health officials found elevated levels of lead in worn turf made of nylon fibers and in dust from two older turf fields in Newark, New Jersey. The fields were closed because officials feared that athletes were swallowing or inhaling lead dust coming from the worn plastic grass.
  • As a result of the New Jersey incident, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued an official health advisory in June 2008 stating that the "potentially unhealthy levels of lead dust" found on the two fields raised concern and warranted additional testing and recommending precautions to reduce the potential exposure to lead dust in artificial turf fields.
  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission, however, tested the artificial turf in the New Jersey fields and concluded that "young children are not at risk from exposure to lead in these fields."
  • In June 2008, California passed a law requiring state agencies to conduct a study investigating the health and environmental impacts of natural versus synthetic turf fields. The report is expected to be released sometime in 2009.
  • In December 2008, New York City officials closed an East Harlem soccer field with 5-year-old artificial turf and designated it for removal after tests determined that it contained 500 parts per million lead (100 ppm more than the maximum set by the U.S. EPA for bare soil in children's play areas).
  • In January 2009, the board of the San Jose (California) Unified School District postponed a decision on installing artificial turf at an elementary school turf after parents raised health concerns that the turf would increase potentially harmful chemical exposure to their children.
  • A January 19, 2009 article on the front page of  The Boston Globe reported that tests commissioned by the Globe detected varying levels of lead in artificial turf fields at several city and suburban high schools in Massachusetts. The most recently installed of the fields, located at Concord-Carlisle High School and costing $3.8 million, contained nearly 300 parts per million lead, according to the Globe-commissioned test. Results, however, from tests performed for Sprinturf, the field's manufacturer, by a lab in Tennessee showed it contained .05 parts per million.