There’s no escaping risk

“Why take the risk?”

That, in four words, is the argument of islanders opposed to the installation of artificial turf at the high school’s Memorial Stadium.

Absent conclusive evidence as to the health and environmental impacts of synthetic play surfaces – and you can find studies going either way – opponents ask that the community stick with natural grass until turf is proven absolutely safe. Which, because there is some degree of risk inherent in any product or activity you can imagine – from bicycling to skiing to eating non-organic foods to crossing the street – can never really be proven.

The truth is, there’s personal risk and environmental hazard around us every day. Even today’s grass football field is surrounded by a broad synthetic-surfaced track – presumably chockablock with the same chemicals found in the “crumb rubber” of a turf play field – and asphalt parking lots collecting who knows what toxins from automobiles that also stink up our air. That’s the unfortunate nature of the built-up environment of which our school grounds are a part.

Why take the added risk of a turf field? Here’s one reason: there are risks inherent in the games themselves. Violent contact in football is understood even to non-fans, and anyone who’s seen a high school lacrosse game has witnessed surprisingly brutal collisions between players. Even soccer, more graceful than its competitive peers, has its share of hard knocks; the potential for injury is there anytime youngsters chase a ball around a field. Yet athletes and their families find those risks acceptable when balanced against the twin ends of positive activity and healthy exercise. They can make the same choice about playing on artificial surfaces.

Too, there is an alternative risk: that as a community, we succumb to the politics of negation, opposing an idea without offering any positive substitute. In pooh-poohing turf, foes are by default demanding the expensive maintenance of a grass field that can only be used eight months of the year instead of year-round. How does this address the island’s deficit of athletic fields? How will we fund construction of more fields elsewhere, and where will they go? How many trees will be cleared to build them, and how will we mitigate that?

But the question before the School Board is not whether a turf athletic field is risk-free, but whether it’s what the community wants. Judging by the turnout Thursday evening, those with the most direct stake in the field’s future – the kids who will play there, and their parents – clearly support it. So do the voters who approved the construction bonds, knowing full well that the school district was considering a synthetic surface. So does the community panel assembled to weigh the costs and benefits. Their numbers say the project pencils out favorably for turf, not least because you can get so many more days of use out of it every year.

As the board moves the project forward – and it should – there’s still a window for environmental review, at which point opponents can round up all the studies they can find to show that a turf field presents an inordinate risk. If so, it’s a risk already assumed by 119 other cities, school and park districts, and colleges around Washington. It strains reason to believe that those communities are less enlightened than our own, or care less about the health of their young athletes.

So why take the risk? Maybe because compared to all the other risks out there, it’s nothing new.



• In the Jan. 9 article about the Creativity Center, the organization’s website was listed incorrectly. The correct address is www.bainbridgeislandcreativitycenter.org.

• City Councilwoman Kim Brackett’s previous position with Sound Transit was misstated Wednesday. Brackett served as a project manager.

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