As synthetic turf replaces traditional grass as the surface of choice for Fairfield County athletic fields, concerns are being raised about potential environmental and health risks.
Some residents and health experts say the material used as cushioning in the fields – ground-up rubber tires – may release harmful chemicals.
Last month, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal called for $200,000 in state funding to examine the issue after the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven released results of a study of the tire crumbs.
The study, which was funded with a $2,000 grant by New Haven-based Environment and Human Health Inc., found that under laboratory conditions, the crumbs released at least four compounds under slightly elevated temperatures that can irritate eyes, skin and mucous membranes, including one recognized carcinogen. The small pieces were also found to leach heavy metals into water.
“What we feel this work suggests is additional studies need to be done at actual installed fields,” said Mary Jane Mattina, lead author of the report. “There are a lot of these fields being installed and the answers to these questions aren’t out there.”
In the spring, Environment and Human Health began receiving inquiries from some Westport residents who were concerned about the two synthetic turf fields installed in the town, and plans to install two more.
Nancy Alderman, Environment and Human Health’s president, said the results of the Connecticut study show enough information to halt the installation of new fields, at least until more work is done.
But officials in area towns where turf fields have been installed, and where plans for installing more synthetic turf is in the works, point to other studies that indicate there is no known cause for concern.
Stamford City Engineer Lou Casolo referred to a recent French study, begun in 2005, that evaluated potential environmental impact from water that passed through the rubber crumbs, as well as the health risk from gaseous emissions.
The study, completed by the leading French government body responsible for used tires, and ADEME, the French Agency for Environment and Energy Management, found no health concerns associated with the compounds emitted by the fields.
In Stamford, three synthetic turf fields have been installed, including one at Westhill High School and one at Rippowam Middle School. The city is planning four more.
“Just based on the information that has been put out there to date, we haven’t found a reason to stop using the synthetic turf systems at this time,” Casolo said. “That’s not to say we wouldn’t continue to follow any further studies and any additional research and react accordingly.”
While the synthetic fields can cost up to $1 million, advocates say they are less costly to maintain than natural grass and need no chemicals. The rubber in-fill also serves to absorb shock and prevent joint injuries.
Darien School Superintendent Don Fiftal said he became interested in the effects of synthetic turf last year, after researchers from Rutgers University in New Jersey examined fields in New York City. The researchers found six compounds in the crumbs that are likely to be carcinogenic.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment station mentions this in its report, noting that the researchers cautioned that the availability of the carcinogens in the rubber is not established, because solvents were used to release the chemicals from the old tires.
Fiftal said there seem to be different positions taken by the manufacturers and installers of the synthetic turf fields and those involved with installing and maintaining natural grass fields.
The controversy employs several dueling studies. Alderman said the synthetic turf and tire industries are active and have funded some of them. She cited a recent study by Columbia University. Using satellite imaging, researchers found that temperatures on the synthetic fields rose to 60 degrees warmer than grass fields because the material is incapable of evaporating water and cool the air above it.
Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry group based in Atlanta, cited various studies, including one by FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, that have not found harmful health effects from the fields.
“If Connecticut feels it needs to look at it another time, it’s up to them,” Doyle said.
Even Blumenthal, who advocates further study, said there should not be a rush to stop using or installing the fields. He said his four children, two of whom are in college, all played on artificial turf.
“I can understand the confusion and doubt because we don’t have all of the answers,” Blumenthal said. “I’m simply trying to be completely honest, as a non-scientist and a non-technician, in digesting what I’ve read and heard from experts, which is that there are several points of view.”
But Alderman said there is no pressing reason to continue installing the fields, and that communities should use caution.
“There’s enough information from (the agricultural) station to say, ‘Wait a minute, this doesn’t look good,’ ” Alderman said. “Kids have been playing on grass for years, so we don’t understand the push to get it done this second.”