Synthetic Turf, Real Risks

Caught up in the county-wide fervor to play sports on synthetic rubber, the AHS community has rallied to implement a new turf field. However, before we plunge face first into the rubber pellets, the health risks associated with synthetic rubber should at least be acknowledged.

Numerous turf field funding initiatives have been set up throughout AHS, including the “Turf Challenge” that challenges each class to raise a certain amount of money, a challenge to each of the teachers to donate $100 and an overall request of support from the community.

As of Nov. 5, the Annandale Turf campaign has raised slightly over $33,000.

It’s easy to see the apparent benefits of turf fields – increased playing time, lower maintenance costs and there would be no need to travel to nearby turf fields for practice. Many have argued that the turf fields will save both AHS and FCPS a lot of money in the long run.

“The biggest benefit for turf fields is we won’t have to worry about postponing games because of field conditions. We’ll be able to play games in the rain. It’s a difficult decision when you get a lot of rain to say ‘okay, do I want to play the game and worry about tearing up the field for future games in the fall or in the spring?’” Director of Student Activities Karl Kerns said. “Because it costs us about $40,000 every year to maintain our three Bermuda Grass fields. That includes the mowing, the field maintenance, the paint that we have to put on the field to line the field for football, field hockey, baseball. When we have soccer and lacrosse we have to paint those lines each time. When you have turf field, you don’t have to worry about any cancellations, we don’t have to mow the field every single day.”

It is undeniable that there would be lower monetary costs, but what environmental and health risks are we willing to pay for lower financial costs? Studies have found the presence of many compounds that are threatening to human health.

Rubber quality

The rubber used in turf field pellets (also called “tire crumbs”) is not approved by the U.S government to be dumped in oceans or landfills, according to the Environment and Human Health Incorporation’s (EHHI) toxicology report about synthetic turf fields.

The report says that only 40 percent of tires are rubber, and that the rest is “carbon black, aromatic oils, sulfur and various metals.”

EHHI’s report states that some of the rubber in synthetic turf fields comes from waste rubber tires, which contain a variety of hazardous chemicals. Synthetic turf fields is not wholly comprised of waste rubber, but the amount of waste rubber in each mixture of turf is unknown.

The EHHI report discusses a multitude of health issues among Taiwanese rubber workers at a scrap tire shredding factory, where tire crumbs are ostensibly derived. Workers have a host of health issues, including acute and chronic respiratory effects and an increased case of laryngeal, skin and bladder cancers due to repeated and prolonged exposure to the particulates released by the processes at the factory.

The particulates analyzed in samples of air collected at the Taiwanese factory included quinoline, amides and benzothiazole (BZT). BZT is a chemical that is considered a “respiratory irritant” by a 2011 report done by the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

While it could be argued that BZT is associated with the rubber-making process, people who use turf fields should be cognizant of the potential for respiratory issues.

Further research should be conducted on the issue of particles such as BZT if they are involved in the production of the rubber crumbs that are intended for the use of high school students.

Effects of prolonged exposure

The tire crumbs contain volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals with carcinogenic potential that are found in paint, aerosols and nail polish. It should be noted that VOCs are not harmful in isolation. However, increased exposure to the VOCs is known to adversely affect the liver, nervous system and potentially cause cancer.

Student athletes who play on turf fields for extended periods of time face increased exposure to the chemicals. They will repeatedly breathe heavily at two or three hour practices for three to six days a week, and inhale all compounds released into the air by the rubber pellets.

Environmental hazards

There is no denying that turf fields lack the environmental benefits that natural grass fields provide the ecosystem. Synthetic turf offers minimal opportunities for filtration that grass provides.

“The drainage in synthetic goes straight through. On a grass field, it drains off to the side, and we have four drains on our field. On a grass field it drains into the soil but there’s a sub-draining system in the synthetic turf fields.” Kerns said about the drainage. “[The water] goes into the watershed. Right now we have to put chemicals down to keep our fields. So those chemicals go into the Chesapeake. With Chesapeake, the studies show you have less pesticides, all those herbicides, everything else that goes into the Chesapeake.”

However, Kerns points the critics of turf fields to the Fairfax County Turf Task Force website for risk assessment of the synthetic turf.

“All of the figures, everything is in there,” Kerns said. “The county, the park authority – if it were dangerous, or they felt it was a risk to the environment, we wouldn’t already have 20 fields in schools and the county wouldn’t put these fields in as well.”

However, IB Environmental Systems and Society (ESS) teacher Caroline Gergel has a different perspective about the benefits of the grass field vs. the synthetic turf.

“You lose all the ecosystem functions that grass provides,” Gergel said. “It helps fix nitrogen in soil, it makes food for other organisms in the food web, not necessarily humans but other things. It’s involved in symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, nematodes and all kinds of soil organisms that are intrinsic to a living soil.”

That being said, synthetic turf seems to be the perfect solution to all of athletes’ problems with grass fields: statistics report a lower amount of injuries, practice and games don’t have to be cancelled because of inclement weather and – added benefit – they cost the county much less money.

All of those benefits are solely for short-term human gain, not for the well-being of the environment.

“What’s the environmental cost of cleaning up the landfill because these things are toxic – they’re going to make waste that is permanently on this earth,” Gergel said. “What’s the cost of that over time?”