Synthetic Turf Makers Hope Random Tests Will End Toxicity Scare
With "toxic turf" suddenly in the headlines, the synthetic turf industry is making an all-out effort to reassure sports field owners, operators and end users that its products are safe. At the same time, an effort is under way to alter product formulations to meet whatever standards are eventually set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, both of which are currently launching nationwide investigations of the potential health hazards of synthetic turf.
The Ironbound park was thought to be in danger of lead contamination from a neighboring scrap yard after samples taken by officials with the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services and the EPA revealed high levels of lead. However, subsequent testing showed that the source of the lead was the synthetic turf itself — lead chromate pigments used for colorfastness in the amount of around 4,000 milligrams per kilogram. This was widely reported, correctly, to be 10 times the amount of lead that is considered acceptable under the state's residential soil standard for the cleanup of contaminated properties. However, as STC president Rick Doyle told Athletic Business, the comparison isn't a fair one.
"The standard they used as a basis of comparison is for the amount of soluble lead that is acceptable in the environment, which has nothing to do with what they were testing," Doyle said May 7. "It didn't take into account the bioavailability of the lead chromate, which is the ability of that lead to leach out into the environment or be absorbed by the body. The lead chromate in synthetic turf is insoluble, encapsulated, it doesn't leach out, and there's no science out there, none that I'm aware of, that suggests otherwise. In fact, if you read the NJDHSS statement that got everyone in an uproar, it says there's no research to suggest a chronic or acute problem."
That statement followed the random testing of a dozen New Jersey fields, which found 10 made from polyethylene that had low or undetectable levels of lead, and two nylon fields, similar in manufacture to the Ironbound field, which showed the same elevated lead content. The state DHSS did note that "available evidence suggests that there are no acute health risks due to use of artificial turf fields, and risks due to chronic and repeated exposure are unlikely." However, the same statement, by Commissioner Heather Howard, stated, "This is a potential consumer safety issue with national implications, since these turf products are widely distributed."
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The STC's Doyle told AB that a likelier scenario will be a standard that, like most such standards, merely states what amount of lead chromate in turf fibers is "acceptable," and offers manufacturers a certain amount of time to accurately test new formulations and phase out the old ones. "We see this, frankly, as a huge opportunity for us to get some authoritative positions that validate what we've been saying for a long time about the safety of our products," Doyle said.
For the many current and prospective owners of synthetic turf fields taking a wait-and-see attitude, there may not be a very long wait. Julie Vallese, the CPSC's senior spokesperson, told AB that lab results should be ready for analysis by the end of June, even though the agency has not yet received permission to test specific fields. The plan is to utilize the agency's XRF technology to detect the presence of heavy metals, and then, back at the lab, subject the samples to more extensive testing that can approximate weather effects, high usage and the aging process.
"We've put this on the fast track," Vallese said. "We realize that many people — field owners, legislators and end users — are looking to the agency for some kind of guidance."
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