Stateline Story

Turf Wars Rage Over Fake Grass

  • April 22, 2008
  • By Eric Kelderman

State legislators are used to political turf wars. Now, debates in a handful of states really are about turf, pitting those who back the artificial variety against supporters of natural grass for playgrounds and athletic fields.

Bills in Minnesota , New Jersey and New York would bar the installation of additional artificial turf until those states complete health and environmental studies on the ground-up tires used for the increasingly popular surfaces. Bills in California and Connecticut call for studies to determine the health and environmental effects of synthetic turf. A proposal in New York City would rip out all the existing artificial fields as well as ban new ones.

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission gave a boost to those concerned with safety when it last week (April 16) announced approval of a study on lead levels released from artificial grass. The study is in response to a request from New Jersey state health regulators who closed fields at The College of New Jersey in Ewing and Frank Sinatra Park in Hoboken on April 14 after samples of synthetic turf showed high levels of lead, a known neurotoxin.

Artificial playing fields have been in use since the 1960s, but began to take off two decades later when improved materials made the surfaces softer and more like real grass. The industry has grown about 20 percent annually since 2001, and the number of new fields doubled from about 400 to 800 between 2003 and 2005, according to the Synthetic Turf Council , a trade group of manufacturers and sellers.

At the current growth rate, the turf council estimates that more than 124 million square feet of artificial turf will be installed in 2009, as the industry targets athletic fields at the more than 45,000 colleges, high schools and middle schools in the United States. Most of the synthetic turf varieties now being used use crumb-rubber from waste tires, sometimes mixed with sand.

While artificial turf can cost twice as much to install as traditional sod, synthetic surfaces require no water, fertilizers or mowing during their average 10-year lifespan. In addition, synthetic playing surfaces hold up better under frequent use and help reduce injuries by providing better traction for athletes, according to industry groups.

But grassroots opponents across the country charge that synthetic turf may cause more environmental damage than real grass, and they raise concerns that children are being exposed to harmful chemicals.

After the New Jersey fields were closed, the Synthetic Turf Council maintained in a press release that the surface poses no risk. The pigment used to color the nylon fibers on the surface contains lead chromate, which the council says is highly insoluble and, even if ingested, could not be absorbed by the body.

In this and other cases, both supporters and opponents of the artificial surface cite scientific studies to back up their differing claims, but both sides agree that more research is needed.

Guive Mirfendereski is among a group of activists that has spent some three years fighting the planned installation of synthetic turf fields at a high school in Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb of about 80,000 residents. Similar fights over synthetic turf have broken out in several nearby suburbs.

Mirfendereski said he became concerned about the crumb rubber used in the artificial turf because there were few independent studies about whether it is harmful.

A group of concerned parents in Westport, Conn., near New York City, last year convinced a local non-profit environmental group to pay for a state laboratory analysis of the crumb-rubber material.

The group, Environment and Human Health Inc .(EHHI), concluded from the study that there should be a moratorium on new synthetic fields because four volatile organic compounds, one of them potentially cancer-causing, could be released from the crumb rubber when it's exposed to high temperatures. The study, completed by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, noted that a section of turf left outside in 88 degrees Fahrenheit reached a temperature of 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

The study also found that elements in the crumb rubber, such as lead and zinc, can be released into water that is exposed to the substance. But EHHI acknowledges that much more research is needed to determine the real risks of synthetic turf.

Tuncer Edil , a civil engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a consultant for the company FieldTurf USA, said the concentration of volatile compounds released from crumb rubber is too low to be harmful when inhaled as dust from artificial turf-covered fields. And the body's digestive system cannot extract any of the toxins if swallowed, Edil has written.

The Synthetic Turf Council also counters that the EHHI study was not done under realistic conditions, and the group points to several other studies and position papers that show a minimal risk from artificial surfaces, including information from the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

"Based upon the current evidence, a public health risk appears unlikely. However, there is still uncertainty, and additional investigation is warranted," the agency stated in October 2007.

Eventually, the din over artificial turf reached the ears of lawmakers in several states, who are weighing the concerns of parents against the lack of conclusive scientific evidence.

"What we're trying to find out is if there is something dangerous about the use of (synthetic turf), said John MacDonald, an aide to New Jersey Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R) , the author of a bill to bar new artificial turf fields until the state completes a study of health risks.

Similar bills have been introduced in New York and Minnesota. A proposed measure in New York City would not only bar new synthetic turf fields, but also require the removal of all existing fields with those surfaces.

But lawmakers have not yet been swayed by the activists' concerns as the industry ramps up its lobbying against the measures; none of the bills to ban fake turf has been moved out of committee.

After lobbying by industry groups, a California bill to block new synthetic fields was changed to a measure that calls for a study of the issue, said Terry Levielle, who writes a newsletter on waste-tire recycling issues in the Golden State.

Jonathan Levy, a lobbyist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc ., said his group has "grave concerns" about the moratoriums. About 51 million tires annually are used to make crumb rubber for a variety of products including a mulch substitute and an ingredient in asphalt, as well as the synthetic turf, he said.

"In the larger environmental picture, if there is nowhere for these tires to go, what do we do with them?' he asked.