The money is budgeted, the athletic committee has given the go-ahead and Superintendent Steve Barker has his recommendation ready.
So why has the Coweta County School System not moved ahead with installing artificial turf on its high school football fields in the two and a half years since the project was first proposed?
Because it could be a killer.
Artificial turf has found its way onto tens of thousands of athletic fields, playgrounds and other safety surfaces frequented by children and young athletes. For high school stadiums like those in Coweta County, artificial turf would mean year-round use and a consistent playing surface, according to Barker.
“The fields would remain in good shape for our athletes whether they play football in the fall or soccer and lacrosse in the spring,” he said. “The playability of the artificial turf remains consistent.”
And while artificial turf can require at least partial replacement after about 10 years, according to Barker, it is generally less expensive than natural grass, depending on the amount of re-sodding and maintenance required.
In October 2014, just as Barker was preparing to recommend approval of the turf installation to the Coweta County Board of Education, an NBC news report caught his attention. Later picked up and expanded upon by numerous other media outlets, the story hinted at a link between “crumb rubber” – tiny particles of recycled tires used as cushioning in artificial turf – and cancer in athletes who played primarily on that surface.
“It sparked debate about the safety of this material,” Barker said. “I recommended to the board that we place the project on hold until more information was available.”
Spurred on by the news reports, federal officials directed the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to examine possible health threats posed by crumb rubber infill – which is used in the artificial turf Barker was just about to recommend installing in Coweta County. The three organizations initiated a joint research project in February 2016.
Artificial turf’s widespread use originated in the 1960s. After Houston’s Astrodome opened in 1965, many of its skylights were darkened to keep athletes from being temporarily blinded by the afternoon sun. As a result, the stadium’s natural grass died off from the lack of sunlight, and artificial turf – dubbed “AstroTurf” – was installed. As the 1970s set in, the short-pile, nylon-fiber playing surface became the preferred covering of many athletic fields.
The chief complaint of athletes who played during that early era of fake grass was that the surface was too hard. Without the “give” of natural grass, players suffered an increased number of knee, ankle and toe sprains and “raspberries” – large scrapes caused by the friction of sliding across the turf. To counter those issues, manufacturers began lengthening the nylon fibers and adding “infill” to cushion the surface. Consisting of tiny granules of such substances as coconut husk, cork and recycled tires, infill is worked into the fibers of the artificial turf during installation.
Crumb rubber, made from recycled tires, is the material at the heart of current health questions.
Most general-use tires are made from styrene-butadiene rubber, a cheap World War II-era synthetic created to counter a shortage of natural rubber. Crumb rubber is created after steel, fiber and other strengthening components are removed. With each tire composed of approximately 70 percent recoverable rubber and one passenger car’s tire capable of producing 10-12 pounds of crumb rubber, the infill business is booming and, at a glance, environmentally friendly.
But after dirt, glass, rocks and other contaminants are filtered out, the tiny, uniform granules can still contain carbon black, which is used as a stabilizer in the manufacture of styrene-butadiene tires. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources’ occupational safety and health guidelines, carbon black “may cause adverse health effects following exposure via inhalation, ingestion or dermal (skin) contact.”
That could cause a problem for athletes in constant contact with artificial turf. Infill pellets wind up sticking to uniforms, cleats and hair, and possibly even getting into mouths, noses and open cuts or sores.
In addition to carbon black, crumb rubber can contain other suspected human carcinogens, including heavy metals and industrial pollutants such as chrysene and benzo(a)pyrene, according to Andrew Watterson, an environmental health expert from the University of Stirling.
Watterson examined the results of tests performed by the Environment Scientifics Group on rubber crumbs.
“This report confirms and reveals the presence of a number of carcinogens at various levels in the rubber crumb,” Watterson told Forbes. “It seems to be fairly clear that there may be some potential risk from some of these substances to sports people.”
But FieldTurf, an international turf manufacturer with a plant in Calhoun, Georgia, claims previous research counters those findings. According to FieldTurf, testing shows no conclusive scientific evidence that artificial turf systems cause health risks.
“Synthetic turf is, and has always been safe,” read a statement issued by the company to Forbes. “There is no scientific or medical evidence that synthetic turf poses a human health or environmental risk.”
Former Northgate High School soccer standout Katie Mitchell, a midfielder for the University of West Georgia, said she’s never given much thought to the annoying bits of crumb rubber that occasionally work their way into her shoes. She has bigger issues with playing on artificial turf.
Turf burns, for instance.
“When you fall on turf, it hurts a lot worse,” Mitchell said. “Some of the cuts that you can get on turf are pretty nasty.”
Mitchell said that while she still prefers turf to some of the poorly maintained natural grass fields she competed on during her high school years – “Some of them were really just dirt,” she said – the artificial fields require a different type of playing style.
“I do find myself slipping on turf a lot easier,” she said. “And the ball bounces a lot differently than on a grass field. I’m not usually too worried about it, but it does affect the way I play. I would much rather play on a natural grass field.”
FieldTurf’s claim is strengthened by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, whose announcement of their joint intent to research potential health risks from artificial turf pointed to limited studies which show no health hazards from tire crumb. However, those studies do not “comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb,” according to the announcement.
A preliminary report from the organizations’ joint study, released Dec. 30, did not include research findings. Instead, it focused on the integrity of the research and revealed a plan to continue collecting samples at playgrounds, athletic fields and other sites where crumb rubber is utilized in a variety of weather conditions.
“We know people are concerned, and players and their families want answers,” read a statement on the EPA’s website. “Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb, but the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb. We are committed to supporting more comprehensive efforts to assess risks from tire crumb.”
One supporter of the federal study is the Synthetic Turf Council, which is confident in the safety of its industry’s products.
“We hope the federal government’s involvement, which we have been encouraging for years, will settle this matter once and for all, put parents’ minds at ease, and validate past and recent due diligence by public officials,” the group wrote in a statement to NBC News.
Final results from the joint study are due later this year. Until then, Barker said Coweta County Schools will watch and wait.
Other infill products like cork and coconut husks, and encapsulated infill also will be considered once the findings are released, Barker said.
“Since these artificial turf fields will be expensive and will require a long-term commitment, I believe we need to consider all available, current information before moving forward,” Barker said.
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