Questions remain on health issues at synthetic turf fields

Guest Column


Manalapan is not unlike other communities throughout the state that are planning to install synthetic turf fields at schools and recreational facilities. The reason is simple: uninterrupted use during and after inclement weather. This fact alone has made them a popular choice among youth sports groups.

They are expensive to install, typically $850,000, and have a life expectancy of eight years before they must be replaced at half the installation cost. Synthetic turf fields have evolved from the original carpet-type artificial fields that I played football on in college, to the current version that appears more like grass with in-fill material using crumb rubber made from recycled automobile tires.

It is the use of crumb rubber in-fill that has drawn the attention of research scientists from around the world. Studies have been prepared with conclusions, both for and against, the use of crumb rubber. Usually the reports are subjective, such that the natural grass industry is against their installation while, of course, the synthetic turf industry does not see any issues with their product.

In researching the countless documents available I looked for independent testing that was done without funding by the grass or synthetic turf industries. I found such a report by a nonprofit organization made up of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts committed to the reduction of environmental health risks at Environmental and Human Health Inc. (EHHI), North Haven, Conn. On Aug. 29, 2007 they released “Exposures to Recycled Tire Rubber Crumbs Used on Synthetic Turf Fields, Playgrounds and as Gardening Mulch” as prepared by David Brown, public health toxicologist.

The tire crumbs are roughly the size of grains of coarse sand, with an average field containing nearly 800,000 pounds. EHHI decided to initiate an exploratory study with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to determine the chemicals released into the air and soil under normal temperatures.

One set of experiments tested for the leaching potential of metals into the soil. Zinc was the predominant metal, selenium, lead and cadmium were also identified. Leachable zinc can kill ornamental plants and prevent crops from growing and should never be used in gardens or composts.

The second set of experiments tested for the releasing of chemicals into the air. The experiments confirmed out-gassing and leaching from synthetic turf rubber crumbs under normal temperatures. Four major chemicals were identified.

The first is benzothiazole, a skin and eye irritant; the second is butylated hydroxyanisol, a recognized carcinogen; the third is n-hexadecane, identified as a severe irritant based on human and animal studies; and the fourth is 4-(t-octyl) phenol which is corrosive and destructive to mucous membranes. Maximum exposure limits have not been established, however, many of the compounds released are considered health risks.

The report references two relevant studies.

The first by Dr. Crain, a professor of psychology at City College of New York, and Dr. Zhang, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

They filed a report this year that found carcinogenic poly-cyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) released from tire crumb infill at levels that exceeded New York State Contaminated Soil Limits.

The second study, by Stuart Gaffin at Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems research, determined that the temperatures present on the playing field with tire crumbs during summer afternoons approached 160 degrees Farenheit.

The study concludes that tire crumbs and tire mulch release chemical compounds into the air and soil under normal temperatures.

Based on recommendations made in this study, Connecticut’s Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is calling for further testing.

After researching the EHHI report I contacted the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) since the only document written on crumb rubber was prepared in June 2007, titled “A White Paper Summary Assessment of the Toxicity from Exposure to Crumb Rubber: Its use in Playgrounds and Artificial Turf Playing Fields.”

I spoke to the author of the paper and discussed with him how he arrived at his conclusions. What I have learned is that no independent laboratory testing was done and the conclusions were solely based on reviewing outside research. In conversation, the author agreed that funding for additional research was needed.

New York City’s public advocate has demanded testing of synthetic turf fields.

The state of New Jersey must acknowledge that the time has come to provide the DEP with the funding necessary to conduct independent testing to determine acceptable inhalation exposure levels for indoor and outdoor facilities, as well as acceptable oral and dermal absorption levels from exposure to rubber crumb in-fill. It takes courage to look into any matter because if you find something, you must act. The DEP is the agency we go to for guidance.

What precautionary principals do we apply to protect the health of our children and the officials who will use the field as we wait for these studies to be completed?

Will restrictions be placed on the use of these fields when the combined air temperature and humidity levels exceed the acceptable heat index that can lead to sunstroke, heat stroke and heat exhaustion?

What will the cost be for the possible remediation required due to the leaching of zinc and PAHs into the soil when it comes time to replace the field?

The DEP indicated that they plan to conduct a conference call with several states to continue discussions regarding these questions.

Why should we rush to install the synthetic turf field in Manalapan when research scientists have so many questions that we need answers to? Let’s get these answers before we begin, so in years to come we do not look back with regret.

Anthony Gennaro, a professional engineer, is a member of the Manalapan Township Committee.