Guest Commentary: Stop Subsidizing Toxic Fields and Playgrounds

A version of this letter was sent to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan, Del. Michael E. Busch, Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Del. Maggie McIntosh, Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, members of House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation Committees, Del. Aruna Miller and Sen. Roger Manno.

We, the undersigned organizations and businesses, are writing to request your support for legislation to restrict the use of state funds for the construction and maintenance of synthetic surfaces (fields and playgrounds) and instead prioritize state-of-the-art natural surface materials to build playgrounds and fields.

synthetic grassWhile we appreciate the arguments that drove past support for synthetic surfaces, a growing set of data is revealing that synthetic surfaces endanger public health and the environment as well as​ ​proving to be ​a poor use of public funds. This new information is cause to reconsider the state’s support for this approach.

We urge your support for HB 505 (Del. Aruna Miller) and SB 763 (Sen. Roger Manno), which would prohibit the use of state funds that largely have come in the form of Program Open Space, matching grants and bond bills, for these purposes.

What is synthetic turf? Plastic synthetic turf is a urethane-backed carpet of colored plastic “blades” on top of a foundation of rocks with soil removed. The plastic contains toxic chemicals such as plasticizers, UV inhibitors, colorants and flame retardants.

Typically, synthetic turf has 30,000 to 50,000 pulverized used tires added for cushioning impacts from falls. This tire crumb waste contains even more toxic substances, including heavy metals such as lead, benzothiazoles, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon black, and volatile organic compounds, such as benzene. Many of these substances are known carcinogens, neurotoxins or endocrine disruptors. Playgrounds made of synthetic surfaces use shredded tires bound with glue and present many of the same problems.

Growing Safety Concerns

Safety is a constant concern with synthetic surfaces. Issues include hazardous over-heating, unexpected failure of infill to cushion (hardness hazard), sanitation problems, and injuries including increased skin abrasions and more frequent joint injury to knees and ankles.

Known Environmental Risk

Synthetic surfaces also encourage poor environmental practices. Despite many claims from the industry that this is a “green” or “recycled” product, it is not. With the growing number of used tires, combined with the prohibition for their disposal in landfills, new markets for this hazardous waste product emerge.

However, using old tires in playing fields and playgrounds is not real recycling. It just brings the landfill to the playing field for a time, spreading toxins into the environment and into people, before eventually heading back to the landfill.

Other environmental concerns include leaching of toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the ground and water along with micro debris plastic pollution from the weathering carpet and tire crumb in-fill.

The frequent replacement carpets are a wasteful use of virgin petroleum-based plastic when a renewable resource (natural grass) is available. Other problems include use of harsh chemicals to disinfect the plastic carpets (a public safety concern), and the heat-island effect along with excess water use to cool down hazardously hot fields on warm sunny days.

There Are Viable Alternatives

Promises of limited maintenance costs, durability and availability for year-round use, and reduced need for pesticides and fertilizers initially made synthetic surfaces a popular material for playgrounds and fields. However, as this generation of infilled synturf field and playground limitations become apparent, and as they fail and must be replaced at high cost, it is a good time to pause and review the alternatives.

Much progress has been made in the cost, quality and durability of natural grass turf. The current state-of-the-art of grass sports fields limit or eliminate chemical inputs while becoming more durable and playable in most conditions. They are also cost-effective.

The environmental benefits of grass surfaces are the opposite of the environmental harms of synturf. They filter water, oxygenate the air and provide safe, softer, practical, sustainable and healthy surfaces to play on. Wood fiber playgrounds are also best for fall protection and are ADA compliant when installed correctly.

We shouldn’t experiment with our children’s health. Indications of negative health repercussions that mainly target children outweigh the promised but overhyped benefits of synthetic surfaces. Many of the chemicals in synthetic surfaces are known to be toxic to children at any levels.

For example, the industry acknowledges, that the dangerous heavy metal — lead — is found in dust from the fields. There is no safe level of lead for child exposure, according to the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics. In another example, clusters of blood cancers in athletes who spend the most time on artificial turf with tire waste infill have been reported (they represent the “canaries on the sports field”). Concussions also have been linked to the fact that these surfaces soon become too hard.

With mounting evidence of health, environmental and economic risk associated with synthetic surfaces, it is irresponsible to continue to use taxpayer dollars to construct fields, regardless of any purported advantage. We can and must use the principle of precaution when our children’s health, safety and future are at stake.

Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environment
Katie Huffling, executive director [email protected]

Audubon Naturalist Society
Eliza Cava, director of conservation [email protected]

Eco-Healthy Child Care
Kristie Trousdale [email protected]

Maryland Environmental Health Network
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, executive director [email protected]

Maryland PIRG
Emily Scarr, director [email protected]

MOM’s Organic Market
Alixandra “Ali” DySard, environmental & partnership manager [email protected]

Montgomery Countryside Alliance
Caroline Taylor, executive director [email protected]

Montgomery County Civic Federation
Peggy Dennis, past president [email protected]

Montgomery County Green Democrats
Sheldon Fishman, president [email protected]

Safe Grow Montgomery
Ling Tan, steering committee member [email protected]

Safe and Healthy Playing Fields Coalition
Diana Conway, board member [email protected]

Saving Earth
Sylvia Diss, co-chair [email protected]

Sierra Club Maryland Chapter
Josh Tulkin, director [email protected]

The Woman’s Democratic Club of Montgomery Count​y
Ginger Macomber, WDC Advocacy Committee co-chair and board member

West Montgomery County Citizens Association
Ginny Barnes, president www.wmcca.org

The Women’s Alliance for Democracy and Justice
Toni Evans, Jean Gearon and Chris Lock [email protected]

6 COMMENTS

  1. I would love to see these same organizations who are so concerned about the safety of children on the playgrounds, be as concerned about the poisons that our food supply is feeding them and the rest of us. GMO products are not foods, not digestible, and are full of Roundup poisons. The foods are processed and full of sugars, fats, and salt. These are the real culprits along with too much technology that our state should address.

  2. Many of us in Maryland who are concerned about artificial turf are worried because of the proven health risks to our children and to our adults. See my letter below as one example, and let’s work together to protect our friends and families.

    To: The Honorable Governor Larry Hogan
    The Honorable Mike Busch, Speaker, Maryland House of Delegates
    The Honorable Thomas V. Mike Miller, President, Maryland Senate
    The Honorable Maggie McIntosh, Chair, House Appropriations Committee
    The Honorable Edward Kasemeyer, Chair, Senate Budget and Taxation Committee

    cc: Members of the House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation Committees
    Delegate Aruna Miller
    Senator Roger Manno

    Subject: State funding for synthetic (artificial) turf and playgrounds (HB 505, SB 763)

    As president of the National Center for Health Research (NCHR) a resident of Montgomery
    County for more than 25 years, and the former Chair of the Governor’s Women’s Health
    Promotion Council, I strongly support HB 505 and SB 763 to prohibit the use of state funds for
    artificial turf fields and similarly dangerous playground materials. NCHR conducts research and
    helps consumers and policy makers understand scientific evidence that can be used to improve
    programs and policies that affect the health of adults and children. We do not accept any funds
    from drug or medical device industry sources. And, as a public health expert and parent of two
    children raised in Maryland, my focus is how we can keep our children safe and healthy.

    Artificial turf is made from synthetic rubber, plastic, and other materials with known health risks.
    For example, the widely used material known as crumb rubber includes cancer-causing agents
    as well as chemicals that disrupt our bodies’ hormones. These are called endocrine-disrupting
    chemicals, and studies show that they contribute to early puberty, obesity, and attention deficit
    disorder. Since endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been banned from rubber duckies, teething
    toys, and other products children use for a relatively short period of time, it makes no sense for
    the State of Maryland to spend millions of dollars on playing fields and playgrounds that will
    expose our children to those same types of banned chemicals day after day, year after year.

    The artificial turf industry and those that have financial and personal ties to them tell us that
    there is no clear evidence that their fields caused any child to develop cancer or any other
    disease. They also state that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the
    Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have declared these materials as safe for use in
    playgrounds or athletic fields. Those statements are misleading. CPSC has conducted recent
    workshops on the topic attended by invited scientific and public health experts, but neither CPSC
    nor EPA have concluded that these products are safe.

    In February 2016, the U.S. government announced a new action plan to better understand the
    likely health risk of recycled tire crumb and similar artificial surfaces. This initiative involves
    the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC); the Agency for Toxic Substances and
    Disease registry (ATSDR); and CPSC. No results are yet available and given the anti-regulatory
    focus of the current federal administration, we do not expect any new restrictions in the near
    future. That makes the actions of Maryland even more important.

    Meanwhile, various reliable science-based studies from the California Office of Environmental
    Health and Yale University, among others, have found dozens of harmful chemical in tire crumb
    used in these playing surfaces. In addition to the impact of those chemicals on children’s
    hormones and development, as mentioned above, tests have shown that artificial turf and
    playground materials can cause skin and eye irritation as well as asthma. The surface
    temperature can rise above 140 degrees even when the temperature of the air and grass is
    between 65 and 95 degrees. Recent testimony before the Maryland House Appropriations
    Committee provided striking examples of children suffering serious burns and MRSA-infected
    abrasions from artificial turf. In fact, players’ preferences and concerns about injuries helped
    convince the Ravens to switch back from artificial turf to natural grass several years ago.

    In summary, those who manufacture or install artificial turf, and scientists and others with
    financial and personal connections to those industries, have made safety claims that are not
    supported by any unbiased research. Even when they admit problems with tire crumb, they claim
    that newer types of artificial turf are safer. Unfortunately, some of the materials used in the
    newer types of artificial turf are not publicly disclosed, making safety claims meaningless and
    safety research all but impossible.

    The State of Maryland has many spending priorities and should not be spending millions of
    dollars for artificial turf fields and playgrounds that can exacerbate our children’s health
    problems now, and potentially cause them to develop cancer in the years to come. Let’s instead
    invest in safe, natural playing fields, unless any synthetic alternatives are proven in unbiased
    research to be as safe and as cost-effective as grass for fields and engineered wood fiber for
    playgrounds.

    Thank you for considering our views. We would be glad to supply additional information upon
    request.

    Sincerely,

    Diana Zuckerman, PhD
    President
    National Center for Health Research

  3. I bet most of these groups would agree! The maintenance manual for synthetic turf advises using Roundup for weed control. Kids shouldn’t be playing on it or eating it! All of these causes are deeply connected in the impact on health and environment.

    • wow, I didn’t know that. probably made by Monsanto or other like chemical companies. so don’t the professional like NFL play on astroturf?

      • NFL players HATE synthetic turf. It is hot, smelly, hard on their bodies and abrasive. . No matter the vendor or infill – most of which has been tire waste. The Ravens went back to grass because they were having to replace their synturf carpet and infill every 5 years and the players advocated hard for grass. the University of Mississippi went back to grass. Toronto went back to grass a number of years ago. The Patriots had players go to the hospital after overheating on a synturf field on a relatively mild day. The plastic “synthetic turf” carpet fad for sports fields may be starting to peak. But the synturf industry like the tobacco industry before it is trying hard and successfully to market synturf for kids, for schools. These plastic fields become hot , hard budget sucking mini black holes in the very heart of a school and rec systems budget since they need to be replaced so often at such high cost.

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