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.

 

While 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 katie@enviRN.org

 

Audubon Naturalist Society
Eliza Cava, director of conservation Eliza.cava@anshome.org

 

Eco-Healthy Child Care
Kristie Trousdale kristiet@cehn.org

 

Maryland Environmental Health Network
Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, executive director tamara@mdehn.org

 

Maryland PIRG
Emily Scarr, director emily@marylandpirg.org

 

MOM’s Organic Market
Alixandra “Ali” DySard, environmental & partnership manager alexandra.dysard@momsorganicmarket.com

 

Montgomery Countryside Alliance
Caroline Taylor, executive director caroline@mocoalliance.org

 

Montgomery County Civic Federation
Peggy Dennis, past president hotyakker@gmail.com

 

Montgomery County Green Democrats
Sheldon Fishman, president sheldon.fishman@gmail.com

 

Safe Grow Montgomery
Ling Tan, steering committee member lingtan.sgm@gmail.com

 

Safe and Healthy Playing Fields Coalition
Diana Conway, board member dconway@erols.com

 

Saving Earth
Sylvia Diss, co-chair dissplay3@gmail.com

 

Sierra Club Maryland Chapter
Josh Tulkin, director josh.tulkin@mdsierra.org

 

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 womensalliancefordandj@gmail.com

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