Synthetic turf industry officials hope that the planned random testing of fields by two federal agencies will end this spring's turf-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.
Industry representatives with the Synthetic Turf Council will be among leaders of seven industries taking part in a "lead roundtable" hosted by the CPSC Tuesday, May 13, part of a research and public relations effort that has gained urgency as more fields have been found to contain elevated levels of lead. One of the STC's primary goals will be to point out what it sees as a fundamental misreading of data stemming from the first discovery of lead in a synthetic turf field at a park in the Ironbound district of Newark, N.J., last fall.
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."
Problem Is Limited
As the story has become widely distributed, more testing has found more fields with elevated levels of lead - and more concern among field owners, and potential field owners, that synthetic turf is unsafe. Even early indications that the problem is limited to fields made of nylon fibers - and possibly further limited to older formulations of fields made of nylon fibers - is failing to arrest the panic, since the crumb rubber used in modern infill (polyethylene) turf systems is the subject of a similar safety debate.
Crumb Rubber Studies
Several studies in Europe and a few in North America have suggested that the crumb rubber used in some synthetic turf installations releases toxins that might cause health problems and be poisonous to plants, although there have been no studies linking specific human ailments with use of synthetic turf. The New Jersey, New York and Minnesota legislatures have called for a moratorium on the installation of synthetic turf fields that use crumb rubber until further scientific studies can be conducted, and a bill before the Connecticut legislature asks the state to appropriate $250,000 to the state Department of Environmental Protection to study the safety of crumb rubber. On May 2, the EPA announced its national investigation of turf infill, with the focus on whether heavy-metal components of rubber such as lead, zinc and arsenic could possibly cause harm if inhaled by players as vaporized gas or washed into groundwater.
Fields Being Replaced
Of the two synthetic turf issues, the lead scare is proving to be far more frightening to field owners. Even though widespread testing that could exonerate the lead chromate in synthetic turf has not yet commenced, nylon fields are in the process of being replaced in three separate communities in New Jersey. In addition, a number of fields have been closed to the public pending the result of the testing. In Montville, N.J., children under the age of 7 have been barred from Camp Dawson's fields, in spite of lead levels five times lower than that found in the Ironbound and other nylon fields (Camp Dawson's fields, which are a blend of nylon and polyethylene, were found to contain 852 milligrams of lead per kilogram). The township's recreation department is also following several operational recommendations of the state health department - watering the turf before and after use to limit dust, and recommending both that individuals wash their hands and bathe after playing on the field, and that clothes worn on the field be taken off inside out and washed separately.
Industry News Conference
Synthetic turf manufacturers insist that these sorts of precautions are unnecessary, calling the toxicity scare "overhyped." At a May 6 news conference held by several manufacturers, AstroTurf general manager Lou Ziebold produced the day's most memorable photo op when he dumped bags of synthetic turf onto the floor to illustrate the huge amount of material - 23 pounds of turf fiber - that he and experts hired by the industry said a 50-pound child would have to swallow before he or she would be at risk from lead chromate. Michael Dennis, chairman of GeneralSports Venue (AstroTurf's U.S. licensee), averred that "Synthetic turf sports fields, including the nylon version brought into question, are completely safe and pose no risk to children or athletes" - although there's no proof of that yet, either. The manufacturers' message has been undercut somewhat by a behind-the-scenes disassociation from the tainted fields; Dennis also announced during the news conference that his firm was working to create "heavy metal-free or lead-free" products, adding, "I believe we'll evolve to ... absolute absence of heavy metals."
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."