Turf fields get the A-OK

A new athletic season is under way and artificial turf fields seem to be sprouting up all over.

The Bainbridge High School football team will jog onto a newly laid synthetic field at North Kitsap Stadium for its season opener Saturday, one of two new fields in Poulsbo.

BHS will have its own artificial field in October when construction at Memorial Stadium concludes. The Bainbridge Metropolitan Park and Recreation District, along with soccer and lacrosse clubs, hopes to begin construction on two artificial fields at Battle Point Park in November.

Over the summer a new crop of concerns sprang up regarding the safety of artificial turf, after studies raised the possibility of high lead levels in the faux-grass fibers.

Organizers for both the Bainbridge High and Battle Point fields say they have been assured that their artificial surfaces will be lead free. Island opponents of turf remain skeptical.

The concerns emerged early this summer in New Jersey when the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services found high levels of lead in the dust of several aging AstroTurf artificial fields. Subsequent tests found potentially harmful lead levels in turf made from nylon or a mix of nylon and polyethylene, and very low lead levels in fields made from polyethylene alone.

Based on the findings, the federal Centers for Disease Control issued a health advisory June 18 warning of a potential danger of lead ingestion in older, weathered artificial fields.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission followed up with a study of 14 fields, both new and old.

Its July 30 report concluded that “newer fields had no lead or generally had the lowest lead levels. Although small amounts of lead were detected on the surface of some older fields, none of these tested fields released amounts of lead that would be harmful to children.”

The CPSC report was greeted as vindication for turf makers, who had maintained that their products were safe. Some criticized the study for not using a larger test sample, and not testing for other elements.

In late August the Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit agency in Oakland, Calif., released the results of independent studies it commissioned on more 150 turf samples, both new and old, from more than 20 turf companies. CEH said results showed more than 30 percent of the samples had high lead levels.

Based on those findings, the California Attorney General and CEH filed suits this week against several top turf manufacturers – including FieldTurf and AstroTurf – under a California law that requires companies to issue a warning if the use of their product can lead to exposure to an unsafe chemical.

The two artificial fields proposed for Battle Point Park are manufactured by FieldTurf. The field that will be rolled out at the school district’s Memorial Stadium in coming weeks is manufactured by AstroTurf.

FieldTurf Director of Marketing Darren Gill said Friday that all new FieldTurf polyethylene fields – including those set to be installed at Battle Point Park – are lead free. Gill said lead was used in many polyethylene fields to bind color to the plastic strands, but over the last 10 years the industry has been phasing out its use of lead, one color at a time.

“Most recently we have been able to reformulate all our colors to be 100 percent lead-free,” Gill said. Gill cited the federal CPSC study as proof that older artificial turf fields are also safe for play.

Laura Sachs, vice president of fields development for Bainbridge Island Youth Soccer Club, which is partnered with the park district in the Battle Point turf project, said FieldTurf provided the club with independent lab tests showing total lead content of the turf. The lab results were reviewed by Michael Johns of Windward Environmental, who has consulted with the park district and club on the project. He said one field sample showed no lead content, while another, presumed to be a painted field line, showed a trace amount.

“Coupled with the CPSC study, the presence of lead doesn’t seem to be an issue,” Johns said.

Jeff Burke of D.A. Hogan, the company that consulted with Bainbridge Island School District on its field project, said the district is also using a new generation synthetic turf that shouldn’t contain more than negligible amounts of lead.

Burke said the school district is awaiting test results from samples of the turf, which will include lead levels.

Chris Van Dyk, who has led a local effort to ban artificial turf installations on the island and promote more natural grass fields, said artificial turf field backers are not giving environmental and health issues “due consideration” if they rely on turf industry representatives for safety information about their products.

Van Dyk said he believes that even if artificial turf fields are proven safe, Bainbridge voters are still in favor of natural fields.

Both artificial turf projects were issued determinations of non-significance in environmental reviews earlier this year. The school district acted as lead agency for the review of its field. The park district project was reviewed by the city as well as Kitsap County Health District.

Along with the impacts of construction, both environmental reviews considered the potential for chemicals to leach out of the crumb rubber, which is used as infill between the polyethylene strands. Both concluded the rubber infill did not pose a risk for users or groundwater.

The school district field has been under construction since June and is expected to be completed before the Oct. 10 homecoming football game.

Park district Senior Planner Perry Barrett said construction can begin on the Battle Point fields after the close of the appeals period for the project’s grade permit. The appeals period runs until Nov. 13.

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