Jan 29, 2015Can Turf Fields Pose Health Risks?
By Dennis Read
Athletic trainers are used to watching contests that are played on their teams’ fields. Now some are seeing battles being fought over those fields. Recent reports of high lead levels in a few synthetic turf fields have roused critics with concerns about the technology’s safety. However, industry leaders strongly stand behind the safety of their products, countering that there is no evidence linking synthetic turf to illness or environmental damage.
The headlines in April were alarming. High levels of lead had been found at an artificial turf field in Newark, N.J., during an environmental cleanup of a nearby scrap metal yard. The lead, however, came from the turf itself, not the yard. The state health department in New Jersey then tested 12 other fields and found two with high lead levels.
The three fields were replaced. All three fields with high lead levels contained older nylon fibers and none of the newer fields composed of polyethylene were flagged for lead.
While saying there was “a very low risk for exposure,” the state health department also cited a lack of standards governing lead levels in synthetic turf and called on the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to investigate the issue. The CPSC and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have said they are investigating and testing various types of synthetic turf, and will likely issue a report sometime this summer.
In the absence of specific guidelines, the state decided to use the standard normally applied to residential soil cleanup, which is 400 milligrams of lead per kilogram. Samples from the affected fields reached as high as 10 times that level.
The ensuing media attention led to the closing of at least two other fields. Most of the closed field have been older AstroTurf fields installed by Southwest Recreational Industries (SRI) containing older nylon fibers. SRI went out of business in 2004.
AstroTurf is now made by GeneralSports Venue, which built the replacement field using lead-free nylon fibers at the Newark location where high lead levels were first detected. GeneralSports also convened a special panel of experts to address concerns about the safety of synthetic turf.
Industry leaders explain that lead has been part of the pigment used to color some fields, especially in line markings and logos. They emphasize, however, the kind of lead used, lead chromate, differs from the lead carbonate previously found in paint and say it presents little danger.
“The pigment used to color the nylon fiber contains lead chromate, a component used to extend the yarn color lifespan,” says the press release issued by the Synthetic Turf Council (STC). “Lead chromate is a highly insoluble compound with extremely low bioavailability, which is diluted, extruded with resins, and microencapsulated within the nylon fiber. In fact, OSHA requires no protective measures when handling the turf fibers.
“Extremely low bioavailability means that even if the compound were to be ingested, it is very difficult for the compound to be absorbed within the body,” it continues. “There is no known evidence that this poses any health risk.”
Uncertain over the extent of any danger, the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services conducted its own tests into the way lead from synthetic turf would be absorbed by the body. It reported that the levels of digestible lead was similar to that found in household dust and soil samples and could result in increased blood lead levels.
“It’s a special concern for children who are already exposed to lead, possibly by living in a home with lead paint. This could add to the lead levels already in their bodies,” said State Epidemiologist and Deputy Commissioner Dr. Eddy Bresnitz.
Synthetic turf manufacturers, however, said that New Jersey’s test show that a child would have to eat nearly 100 pounds of synthetic turf to have increased blood lead levels.
“This is better than we expected,” said Lou Ziebold, General Manager of AstroTurf(R). “The NJDHSS testing not only supports our position that AstroTurf(R) poses no realistic health hazard, but concludes that the level of bioavailability is nearly five times lower than we conservatively estimated.”
The discovery of excess lead was just the latest wrinkle in the discussions over the safety of synthetic turf. Some consumer protection groups have raised concerns over possible exposure to dangerous chemicals resulting from the use of crumb rubber from recycled tires as an infill. They also say that synthetic turf fields get much hotter than natural turf, which raises the danger from chemical emissions, increases the possibility of heat illness, and may even contribute to global warming.
Environmental and Human Health Inc., a non-profit health advocacy group in New Haven, Conn., has been in front of an effort to impose a moratorium on the installation of new synthetic turf fields pending further investigation of their safety. Three states have made calls such an action, although none has yet been implemented. Two other states are considering further testing.
The group called for a moratorium on installing new fields after a laboratory study it commissioned reported that heated crumb rubber gives off vapors containing at least four organic chemicals that can irritate eyes, skin, and lungs. One of the chemicals–butylated hydroxyanisole–has been linked to cancer. No data is available on the level of exposure athletes face and how the chemicals might be absorbed by the body.
The STC counters by saying there has not been a reported case of illness or environmental damage in the 40 years since synthetic turf was introduced. A review of current literature made on behalf of the New York City Department of health found no evidence that synthetic fields present increased risk, although it did find that several potentially harmful chemicals were present and said existing research was inconclusive in some areas.
While it awaits further investigation into the potential risk presented by lead and other components of synthetic turf fields, the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services offers the following steps synthetic turf field operators can take as a precaution against possible risks.
“If a field is found to have high lead levels, field managers can consider limiting access to the field, especially for the most vulnerable population of children under seven years of age.
As a precaution, until further guidance is available, custodians of all turf fields, but especially turf fields with nylon fibers, can implement the following recommendations, in addition to testing their turf field:
• Dust suppression, in the form of watering down the field, can be conducted before and after the field is being utilized;
• Encourage individuals who use the field to perform aggressive hand/body washing after playing on the field;
• Clothes that were worn on the field should be taken off inside out and washed separately.”
Dennis Read is Associate Editor at Athletic Management.
I read your article with interest. Here at East Brunswick HS, East Brunswick, NJ we just had Field Turf put in our new field last fall. We have used it for one spring and are approaching our first summer/fall season of use.
This past spring New Jersey had some days with air temperatures in the 95-97 range. I measured ground temperatures with my infrared thermometer The grass area was 111, the road was 146, the new track was 153 and the new turf was 156 degrees F. Having no background on the new turf, I have one of those “guides,” you know w with wet bulb-dry bulb etc. for athletes’ safety; however, my question is this……is there a guide for my athletes who are standing on 155 degree turf ??!! There certainly should be.
I called Field Turf who stated “no we don’t, maybe we should develop one”. Do you know of a source for this type of guideline? Certainly my colleagues and I should have this as we approach next August.
Thanks, Phil Hossler, ATC EATA Past President ATSNJ, NJSCA, NJSIAA & NATA Halls of Fame East Brunswick (N.J.) High School