Is it Safe? Barrington Rejects Artificial Turf

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BARRINGTON, R.I. — Residents voted down replacing the high school’s worn-out natural-grass football field with a synthetic turf field. But like much of the region, this sports-crazed suburb is likely to have at least one artificial-grass field in its near future.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen here,” said resident John Duffy during public comments at the May 27 financial Town Meeting.

Indeed, opponents in the 208-to-139 vote seemed most swayed by the fact that the proposal to spend $1.5 million on artificial turf hadn’t been fully vetted by the School Committee and Town Council. In recent weeks, both boards agreed to form subcommittees to take a close look at costs, and possible revenue sources, of a turf field and bring it back to a vote at next year’s Town Meeting.

Similar votes are moving forward in East Providence, Bristol and other communities in southern New England. Rhode Island will soon have 14 facilities with synthetic turf fields, including at least one at all of it its major universities. Most youth leagues play or practice on one. Privately owned facilities typically charge about $100 an hour for use by outside leagues and the revenue covers turf maintenance and replacement costs.

Calls for turf fields have risen considerably in recent years as youth athletics, in particular girls sports, has increased. Turf fields, with their high durability and low maintenance, are a popular option for schools and communities with limited real estate. While grass fields require weeks of rest to regrow and aerate, turf fields can be used nonstop. Thus, one turf field can handle the workload of four natural-grass fields.

There are environmental benefits, as well, such as limited water use and no need for pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The main drawback is the rubber beads that provide cushioning for the synthetic field. The beads, called crumb rubber, are made from recycled tires.

In Barrington, environmental issues were repeatedly raised, but they didn’t seem to fully sway opponents as much as the financial questions.

Studies have varied on the health risks of artificial-turf fields. One of the most sited has been the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2009 report that found generally safe levels of pollutants in the recycled rubber beads that are common in turf fields. Recently, however, the EPA has downplayed its findings, saying more research is needed before a conclusion can be reached.

Although crumb rubber contains lead, mercury, cadmium and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued a letter in March saying the risks of cancer to athletes from inhalation or skin absorption of crumb rubber were unlikely. The Connecticut Department of Public Health announced similar conclusions in January.

But some people still worry. Beverly Migliore, a Barrington resident and scientist who studies turf fields for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said for every article that supports turf field there are articles that oppose it. She suggested the town higher a risk-assessment specialist to analyze environmental impacts and risks of injuries.

“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered before we say yes to something like this,” she said.

Other opponents noted that turf fields cause injuries and health issues that lead to lawsuits; have higher carbon footprints; and crumb rubber leaves the field on athletes and through runoff. Several suggested that the town consider safer alternatives such as silica sand, pulverized sneakers, cork and coconut hull.

Resident Kathleen Crane, a former Division I athlete, agreed that time is needed to examine the potential health risks.

“Many of which we don’t know because we don’t know the data,” she said. “I personally don’t want our children to be that data and the unknown health effects are paramount to me.”