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Artificial Grass Sports Field Safety Study from EPA – Preliminary Details Say Surfaces are Safe

Preliminary results of a new study by the Environmental Protection Agency may contain good news for field operators. The raw data shows there is no inhalation danger to children who play on various types of artificial fields and play surfaces, according to the EPA.

In April 2008, New Jersey health officials issued an alert after finding elevated levels of lead dust coming from the pigment in two aging artificial-turf fields.

Inspectors discovered the lead emissions in the Newark and Hoboken fields while checking air quality in those areas.

Officials across the country abruptly closed dozens of nylon-turf fields to test for lead. Some posted warnings and discussed moratoriums.

Over the past year, federal and state agencies have launched their own studies, and issued conflicting findings. School and municipal officials have reopened most of the fields, although safety questions have lingered.

But the preliminary results of a new study by the Environmental Protection Agency may contain good news for field operators. The raw data shows there is no inhalation danger to children who play on various types of artificial fields and play surfaces, according to EPA spokesman Dale Kemery.

“It appears that the results are echoing the New York findings,” Kemery said, citing reports issued last month by the New York state government. The reports found no “detrimental health or environmental effects.”

The EPA study also will address concerns that carcinogens may be emitted from pulverized rubber tires that provide cushioning for many newer-generation, mixed-fiber fields, and play surfaces.

“This is the first I’m hearing of any health issue with the ground-up tires,” Matt Golden, spokesman for the College of New Jersey, said yesterday.

In spring 2008, the college replaced its football field – after test results showed elevated lead levels – with a roughly $800,000 Heisman Turf field with no lead. The field, however, has rubber crumbs woven into it.

“Certainly we’d be relieved,” Golden said, if the EPA finds there is no new issue.

Last fall, the EPA began testing four artificial fields for health and pollution problems, and results are expected in a few weeks. Kemery cautioned that the EPA report is still being analyzed.

If “a smoking gun” is found in the data, Kemery said, the EPA plans a more extensive study. He said the EPA is checking for “whatever comes off those fields at three feet off the ground, which is the average height of kids” who use the fields, he said.

Recently, a rubber-crumb surface was installed beneath the Obama family’s play set at the White House after the National Recreation and Park Association recommended it to minimize injuries. The association said it was safe, based on the assurances of the turf industry and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which for years approved the tire mulch.

Last summer, the commission analyzed the lead in the fields and found the health risks were minimal.

Though children can touch the surfaces and ingest lead dust, the amounts are not dangerous, the commission found. Inhalation of significant dust is not likely, the commission said.

But at the same time, the Centers for Disease Control issued advisories to parents and field managers to take precautions to reduce exposure. Lead can cause brain and neurological ailments.

State agencies and grassroots organizations also stepped into the fray. While the New York studies calmed fears, others conducted in California sounded alarms. New Jersey recommended lead tests for children under 7 who played on the fields.

As for the rubber crumbs, scientists with the nonprofit Environmental and Human Health organization in Connecticut are calling for a ban, saying they contain PCBs, and can cause respiratory ailments and cancer.

But Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, says most studies conclude turf fields are safe.

These “ought to be reviewed and read and acknowledged,” he said. “There’s a lot of information that ought to give comfort to parents.”

Doyle said the fields allow children more playable time to exercise and avoid obesity.

In Camden County, Voorhees Township manager Larry Spellman said the community’s two-year-old artificial field saved many sporting events during the recent rainy spate. The natural grass field, he said, would have turned to “dirt and mud.”

Spellman was surprised to learn last week of the rubber-crumb issue.

Kemery said the EPA was aware of concerns about the rubber crumbs for more than a year and was considering a study. The New Jersey report, he said, “got the ball rolling” for an overall look at artificial turf.

In January 2008, Denver EPA officials had urged the agency to investigate the rubber crumbs, saying scientists founds gaps in evidence, according to internal memos. The EPA released the documents earlier this month after the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said the EPA endorsed artificial-turf fields as safe in 1981 and then ignored its own scientists’ requests to take another look. Ruch said the EPA seems more interested in the benefits of recycling thousands of old tires. Each field uses roughly 25,000 ground tires.

“We should start looking at whether this is toxic to kids,” Ruch said.

Meanwhile, New York City parks officials recently said they will only purchase fields with fill made of sand or organics such as ground up walnut shells. And, New Jersey health officials continue to advise parents to make sure children scrub well after playing on the fields.

“The recommendations are still in force,” said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.

The turf industry has voluntarily agreed to reduce the lead levels over the next three years. Doyle said the industry will comply with a new federal law that lowers lead content in toys.

Doyle said lead provides a color-fast quality, and the industry is looking for a new formula to make sure the red logo at the turf field at Ohio State “does not become pink.”

But Charles Margulis, with the Center for Environmental Health in California, says color is not the issue.

“They say a little bit of lead doesn’t hurt, but we don’t agree,” he said. The new law and the industry’s concessions, he said, will help reduce the amount of lead in the environment so that children will be protected.

Original Story: The Philadelphia Inquirer – June 30, 2009

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