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Artificial Turf = Toxic Turf

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For years debates have raged across the nation about the use of artificial or synthetic turf, also called plastic turf--and by critics, "toxic turf."

The use of the stuff as a substitute for grass on sports fields began with the installation at the Houston Astrodome in 1966 of what was originally sold as "ChemGrass" and then "AstroTurf." As years have passed, there has been greater concern about artificial turf--as often happens with the introduction of an industrial product made of problematic chemicals.

However, there are now nearly 12,000 sports fields in the U.S. using artificial turf and more are proposed including in the school district where I live, Sag Harbor on Long Island, New York. There'll be a referendum next month that could stop it there.

An organization in the lead on Long Island in opposing artificial turf is Grassroots Environmental Education based in Port Washington, west of Sag Harbor. A succinct summary of its dangers are on the group's website. It notes that "artificial turf fields are typically filled with up to ten tons of ground-up truck and automobile tires. This recycled rubber contains high levels of toxic substances which prohibit its disposal in landfills... Recent studies conducted in Connecticut and New York have confirmed the presence of hazardous materials on existing fields. Chemical toxins identified included the metals arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead and zinc, the chemicals acetone, ethylbenzene, tetrachloroethylene, toluene and xylene, and phthalates... While advocates claim the fields are safe, the potential health effects of exposure to these chemicals--endocrine disruption, neurological impairment and cancer--can take years to manifest themselves."

Dr. Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine Children's Environmental Health Center in New York City, linking the materials in artificial turf to diseases especially cancer, speaks of "these toxins being inhaled, absorbed through the skin and even swallowed by children who play on synthetic turf fields."

Dr. David Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute of Health and the Environment at SUNY's Albany State University, says: "I recommend schools go with old-fashioned grass. I understand the issue that when it rains a grass field can get muddy, but that doesn't increase the risk that kids are going to have an increased chance of developing diseases."

Google the words artificial turf or synthetic turf and you will find much information.

Of course, those making money from it say it's safe. Commenting on this claim at a Sag Harbor school-board meeting in March, Susan Lamontagne said: "For generations, if you look back at the history of environmental health, there are all kinds of chemicals and products we are promised are safe" because "industry has one priority and that is profit." She said parents of Sag Harbor school children "have only one priority and that is the health and safety of our children."

Thereafter, Ms. Lamontagne decided to run for a seat on the board. With this as a major issue, she was elected, taking office in July. She was saying last week that she just returned from a "wellness-training program" at a Long Island Board of Cooperative Educational Services at which the instructor noted "how cigarette smoking by students and teachers was allowed as recently as the 1980s. I think this is a pretty good analogy to artificial turf. Smoking cigarettes had been accepted and allowed!" Then the deadly impacts of smoking were realized. "It takes a while to understand health effects when they take time to manifest." Moreover, young people "are much more susceptible to the effects of environmental contaminants."

Ms. Lamontagne declared: "I don't understand why these fields are at any schools."

Another opponent is Helen Roussel, the mother three children in Sag Harbor schools who said last week she was "dismayed at the thought of them running across a field of crumbed pieces of petroleum-based tires with toxic dust flying into their mouths, eyes, hair and clothes. Why recklessly expose them to lead, chromium and a host of other carcinogens as well as injuries and burns from the plastic? Cancer rates in the U.S. are skyrocketing, and exposure to carcinogens is now a significant factor in a huge amount of cases. I am not willing to gamble with my children's health or the health of our beautiful bays and sources of water. Synthetic turf is unsustainable--it is a health and environmental hazard period."

Not only is it a health issue, it's expensive. Why will there be a new referendum in Sag Harbor on December 14 on the turf plan? It is because the original cost of $1.62 million has jumped by $365,625.

Last week I read this column, up to here, to students in the Environmental Journalism class I've taught at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury for four decades. They erupted with their own experiences. One young woman spoke of "always getting cut up" falling on artificial turf playing soccer. A young man said in playing football at a Long Island high school, "I got these nasty pieces of plastic embedded in me. It took weeks to pull each of them out."

What is being done to our young people?

(Article changed on November 12, 2016 at 16:34)


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Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury and host of the nationally syndicated TV program Enviro Close-Up.
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