Public debates the pros and cons of turf fields

Warwick. Residents use public comment segment of Monday's Warwick Valley School Board meeting to to weigh in on the proposed replacement of grass fields for artificial surfaces that's on next week's referendum.

12 Dec 2019 | 10:56

    The Warwick Valley School District is considering replacing its natural grass athletic fields with synthetic turf.

    The main reason for this replacement, the administration says, is so that the fields can be used for several different sports simultaneously, as opposed to only for home football games, as at present.

    The administration also maintains that a multi-sport field – lined for football, soccer and lacrosse – would be available to more student athletes year-round, and would be available for community sports also.

    According to a presentation made by LAN Associates (the engineering firm advising the WVCSD) at a previous meeting in October, artificial turf offers these potential benefits:

    · Lower maintenance costs

    · Decreased water usage

    · Increased durability

    · Increased available play time

    · No downtime for the field after heavy use

    · Elimination of pesticides and fertilizers

    · Year-round green fields

    Safety concerns addressed

    Again, according to LAN, modern synthetic fields have improved over the early versions from the 1960s, “which were built on a concrete base that increased the risk of injuries.”

    Current turf fields are composed of a “plastic” grass with a flexible rubber base, making these fields more pliable and, therefore, safer for high-impact sports. An independent study of artificial turf done by the New York State Department of Education found no reason to discredit the safety of those fields.

    A 2010 study of injury risk to youth soccer players on artificial turf versus natural grass found that “there was no difference in the overall risk of acute injury in youth footballers playing on third-generation turf compared with grass.”

    Health concerns

    Some people are concerned about potential health risks of artificial grass, which uses “crumb rubber” infill, a material that comes from recycled tires. From LAN’s presentation: “Crumb rubber is considered one of the most environmentally friendly infill options. 100% of crumb rubber comes from recycled tires, which keeps all that rubber out of landfills.”

    Additionally, the engineering firm said at the previous board meeting that there are a number of crumb rubber alternatives, such as coated rubber, virgin-grade (non-recycled) rubber, and organic materials like cork, which have the advantage of cooler playing surfaces in hot weather. The downside to some of these alternatives, LAN continued, is poor drainage in certain types of weather, as well as a substantially increased cost to the artificial turf field.

    The firm added that, while there are “several websites that accuse crumb rubber of being unsafe, many studies have been done on the subject, and LAN has not read any to date that found any causal relationship between crumb rubber and cancer.”

    A Connecticut study of synthetic fields determined that “Cancer and non-cancer risk levels were at or below de minimus levels of concern.”

    In 2017, the Washington State Department of Health issued its analysis of cancer rates and youth athletes playing on synthetic turf fields with recycled rubber infill, and stated: “Based on what we know today, the Washington State Department of Health recommends that people who enjoy soccer continue to play regardless of the type of field surface.”

    Closer to home, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and New York State Department of Health conducted tests in May 2009, and concluded that fields tested “do not raise a concern for non-cancer or cancer health effects for people who use or visit the fields.”

    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while conceding that there are no current studies that show an increased risk from playing on fields with tire crumb rubber, has committed to a multi-agency research effort, known as the Federal Research Action Plan on Recycled Tire Crumb Used on Playing Fields and Playgrounds (FRAP). The first part of that study was released this past July 25.

    Community reaction: concerns about health, environment vs. making way for ‘progress,’ increasing athletic opportunities for students and community

    Howard Horowitz, a concerned citizen, warned of the “hazards of artificial turf.”

    “There are very serious concerns,” he said. “Mt. Sinai Medical (in NYC) urged a moratorium” on artificial turf fields, due to increased incidents of cancers in athletes exposed to them. “The federal government has only begun to study this issue.”

    He exhorted the school board to have a discussion on this issue before the December 18th vote. Also: “PFAS (chemical compounds) are in artificial turf, because it makes the (artificial) grass smoother.”

    Horowitz “encourage(d) everybody – including the board – to see the movie called “Dark Waters,” that deals with the health and safety risks associated with PFAS. He added that “costs of disposal (when the turf eventually wears out) are quite large ... two fields would cost Orange County $85,000 alone in landfill fees.”

    He concluded, even though public comment time constraints prevented him from covering all the details, that “put(ting) to a vote a matter of science” when the public doesn’t fully comprehend the issue “can lead to catastrophe.”

    He would gladly vote for the rest of the improvements, if the turf issue was a stand-alone.

    The science is 'unsettled'
    Mary Makofske said she is “very concerned about this, partly because of what Howard mentioned.”

    The main issue for her is that the science is “unsettled,” but her concerns are twofold, student safety and environmental: “Plastic, which will have to be replaced (eventually) with more plastic.”

    She added: “(This material) is made in places like ... Appalachia ... places where they don’t need more pollution.”

    Makofske was “very sad” that she didn’t know about this proposal sooner, as she said she favors the other proposed improvements: “They’re necessary,” but wishes that the synthetic turf would be voted on separately. (See Makofske’s 12/1/19 letter to editor at warwickadvertiser.com.)

    Life-long resident John Barnett also opposed the synthetic turf: “I don’t think we need artificial grass.”

    He also questioned the need for the other repairs: “Why are we replacing boilers that are newer than the one in my house? Are we going to put in something less efficient that’s going to break down?”

    Also: “Can’t we just patch the roofs (as has been done at BOCES)?”

    Barnett worried about his taxes going up: “Can we ever save money in this town? If we have a surplus, can’t we give it back to the taxpayer?”

    Theresa Benjamin, a district parent, wondered if the school board reached out to the community before this week. She also lamented the notion of putting down artificial turf in a farming community: “We can grow anything here: celery, sod – yet we’re putting in a plastic and concrete field.”

    She, too, was concerned about the crumb rubber fill to be used as a base, and claimed that her daughter’s gym class saw a sample of the materials to be used on the renewed field back in October: “Why not the adults?” This chance to reach out to parents, she added, could’ve been done at the recent parent-teacher conferences: it was, she concluded, “a missed opportunity.”

    Benjamin hoped that the district’s mailing would reach the community in time, because the plastic in the turf fields, she said, “are forever chemicals.”

    She said that if the BOE won’t decouple the turf item from the rest of the improvements, she’ll “vote ‘No’.”

    Another district parent, Peter Hall, said that “This is an ill-conceived plan,” and that he doesn’t want kids breathing in “out-gasses” or “micro-particles.”

    “Even the NFL is against it.”

    'I don't understand the huge cost'

    Turf grass sod farmer and former town councilman Leonard DeBuck said, “I don’t understand the huge cost of both fields.” He added that he didn’t understand the “strategy of waiting until December 9 when you (the BOE) had information (on synthetic turf) since October.”

    He continued: “Who’s been waiting ten years for this?” DeBuck maintained that the current field is “beautiful,” and wondered “Who’s in charge of dictating when we can use the field?”

    “As a grower of turf,” he added, “it’s made to be played on.”

    Physical education teacher, coach and local farmer Justin Wright offered his perspective, as a “fourth-generation farmer in Warwick, whose family has been farming since 1912: “I’m pro-open space, pro-grass and pro-farm.” At the same time: “I’m also pro-turf, pro-progress.”

    This project, he said, “will help keep kids active, reducing childhood obesity.”

    Wright pointed out that many of the studies regarding possible health risks are mixed/inconclusive. “My most important job is as a parent,” and he’s not concerned about his kids playing on synthetic turf.

    'Making the district great'

    Melanie Beattie, a Warwick grad whose parents and husband are, too, commended the school board for “making the district great.” She said that her two children are in Warwick schools and are both “heavily involved” in youth sports.

    She compared Warwick to other school districts: “I’ve seen many other towns and what they have to offer, some better than others.” She added, “Athletic enhancements can attract ‘best-in-class’ athletes” to the district. Beattie argued that the coaching and athletic community are very in favor of artificial turf: “We’re fully supportive.”

    District parent Greg Voloshin has a favorable view of WV schools overall: He’s impressed with various improvements to date, and “couldn’t be more pleased with how the information was rolled out to the community...very transparent.”

    “The board has done a great job ... We appreciate (your) efforts. We trust your judgment.”

    PFAS
    According to the Environmental Working Group website: “Per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals, are a family of thousands of chemicals used to make water-, grease- and stain-repellent coatings for a vast array of consumer goods and industrial applications. These chemicals are notoriously persistent in the environment and the human body, and some have been linked to serious health hazards.
    The two most notorious PFAS chemicals – PFOA, formerly used by DuPont to make Teflon, and PFOS, an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard – were phased out under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency after scientific evidence of serious health problems came to light. The manufacture, use and importation of both PFOA and PFOS are now effectively banned in the U.S., but evidence suggests the next-generation PFAS chemicals that have replaced them may be just as toxic. PFAS chemicals pollute water, do not break down and remain in the environment and in people for decades.
    Studies have linked PFAS chemicals to:
    Testicular, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer.
    Weakened childhood immunity.
    Low birth weight.
    Endocrine disruption.
    Increased cholesterol.
    Weight gain in children and dieting adults.