Monday, August 31, 2015

Opinion: Some City Fields Should Be Artificial Turf

From Darrell Ponzio, city resident. 

The Study and Recommendations

In April 2015, at the request of the City of Middletown’s Public Works Department, Milone & MacBroom provided a thorough analysis of the City’s parks and recreation facilities.  There are three components to the study:  1) an analysis of the existing conditions at each facility, 2) a demand analysis, and 3) recommendations for improving the facilities.  This effort was commissioned to support an anticipated bonding referendum for a program that has two overall goals:  
  1. To thoughtfully and with appropriate vision, build a capital improvement program that would offer the city’s residents modern, useable, maintainable and sustainable park and recreational facilities.
  2. To provide sufficient facilities for all athletic programs, inclusive of practices and games, now and in the future, as appropriate to each such athletic program.  This would include fields of appropriate size, markings and conditions, with reasonable availability for the various seasons needed.
A common theme in the current-state analysis was that the rectangular fields and diamonds are overused; resulting in compaction, weed growth and large bare/dirt areas.  The conclusions of the study are many with specific recommendations for each identified facility.  Among the many recommendations, a keystone to the overall study is the recommendation for new artificial turf installation and natural turf renovations as follows:
  1. Lawrence School – natural turf renovation of the multi-use and softball fields.
  2. Moody School – natural turf renovation of the baseball ball and 1 softball field.  Installation of artificial turf for the rectangular field and the 2nd softball field that will add an “overlay” rectangular field.  Both artificial turf fields are lighted with existing field lights.
  3. Snow School – natural turf renovation of all existing fields.
  4. Wesley School – natural turf renovation of all existing fields.
  5. Woodrow Wilson & Pat Kidney - installation of artificial turf fields for Pat Kidney and Woodrow Wilson, to accommodate baseball, softball and a rectangular “overlay” field at Pat Kidney and a rectangular multi-use field at Woodrow Wilson.  All fields would be lighted.
  6. Hubbard Park – installation of artificial turf on both baseball fields.
  7. Smith Park – natural turf renovation of the baseball and rectangular fields.
  8. Country Club Road Complex – natural turf renovation of 1 field and artificial turf installation at two rectangular fields.
  9. Long Hill Road Complex – natural turf renovation of the two existing fields.
  10. McCutcheon Park – natural turf renovation of the existing baseball, softball and rectangular “overlay” fields
As shown above, the recommendations offer a balance of natural and artificial playing surfaces to ensure the city can meet the demand for field hours with accommodations that can stand up to the volume of usage expected.  It should be noted that the study does not recommend the creation of any new fields or facilities.  This is because the combination of artificial and natural turf facilities would accommodate the current and future demands of all the city’s athletic programs’ demands.  Critical to understand is that the each artificial turf field yields between 2 and 4 times as much available playing time as natural turf fields.  According a Montgomery County Turf Report in 2011, “…even under the most conservative assumptions, an artificial turf field provides hours of use equivalent to approximately 3 natural grass fields.  In other words, to achieve the same programming benefit of one artificial turf field, three natural turf fields would have to be build and maintained.”  This is because artificial turf fields require no “rest”, mowing, watering, fertilizing, aerating, or lining at any time.  They can be used during and immediately after rain events, and they are lined for all sports that may possibly use the field, which allows for immediate transition from one sport to another on any given day.

Common Council Vote and Impacts to Improvement Program

On Monday August 24, 2015 at the regularly schedule Common Council meeting, the Council was slated to vote on the bond legislation with a planned referendum in the November 2015 election.  At the meeting, a group of approximately 25 environmentally conscious residents offered their opinions on health concerns of artificial turf fields.  In particular, the concerns centered around the potential for cancer-causing agents in the crumb rubber infill used on artificial turf fields.  A proposal was put forth to alter the bond language to specifically exclude any artificial turf fields from the program.  The motion was seconded and voted to a tie.  Following procedure, the Mayor had to cast the deciding vote in favor of the motion.  

Unfortunately, this entire process was conducted without ensuring that the Council members and Mayor had all the necessary factual information at hand.  Even more unfortunately, the vote hog-ties the City and the Public Works Department by prohibiting the option to use artificial turf fields – and this effectively nullifies the most important benefit of the entire program, which is to build a set of facilities that can accommodate the demands of all the city’s recreational and athletic programs now and in the future.

Health Concerns – Fact and Emotion

In October 2014, NBC News published reports on safety concerns related to the crumb rubber infill on artificial turf fields using an informal set of observations from a soccer coach at the University of Washington.  The coach identified an alarming trend that correlated frequent use (and in particular rolling around on) turf fields with increased risk of certain cancers.  This kind of concern understandably hits home with all parents, including me.  Many towns, schools and colleges looking to renovate and improve their sports facilities look carefully at artificial turf.  These organizations are fully aware of the health-related concerns as well as the potential legal risks of installing facilities with known (or what can be reasonably known) health risks.  And yet we continue to see artificial turf being installed all around us.  Wesleyan University and Fairfield University both installed new artificial turf fields in the last 18 months.  Here are the facts that have been made available to the City of Middletown’s Common Council, Planning and Zoning and Public Works Departments:
  1. Letter from The Commonwealth of Massachusetts to Health Department of Town of Medway MA, March 2015 – “…the scientific literature continues to suggest that exposure opportunities to artificial turf fields are not generally expected to result in health effects.  Testing results on the crumb rubber infill indicated lead content less than CPSIA statutory limits established for children’s products.  For the turf fibers, APT provided a statement that this material did not have lead used in its manufacture, but no additional documentation was provided…With respect to cancer concerns reported in the media stories, it is important to note that the reports of cancers were of a wide variety of different types, each with its own set of risk factors.”  The letter does recommend some common sense best practices to minimize any potential exposure including the washing of hands after each event.  This kind of recommendation would be the same for natural turf fields.
  2. State of Connecticut DEEP, Result of State Artificial Turf Fields Study: No Elevated Health Risk, July 2010 – “A new study of artificial turf fields containing crumb rubber infill conducted by four state agencies shows that health risks are not elevated from playing on the fields…The four state agencies, the University of Connecticut Health Center, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Protection evaluated the health and environmental impacts associated with artificial turf fields containing crumb rubber infill.  Overall, approximately 200 chemicals were tested at each field.” 
  3. Artificial Turf Study, Leachate and Stormwater Characteristics, Department of Environmental Protection, July 2010 – “The DEP concludes that there is a potential risk to surface waters and aquatic organisms associated with the whole effluent and zinc toxicity of stormwater runoff from artificial turf fields…the study did not identify any significant risks to groundwater protection criteria in the stormwater runoff from artificial turf fields.”  To mitigate any risks associated with runoff water, the report offers suggested measures to reduce zinc concentrations.
  4. A Scoping-Level Field Monitoring Study of Synthetic Turf Fields and Playgrounds, United States Environmental Protection Agency, November 2009 – “…All Particulate Matter (“PM10”) air concentrations were well below National Ambient Air Quality Standards for PM10.  All concentrations for lead were well below the NAAQS for lead…The average extractable lead concentrations for turf blade, tire crumb infill, and tire crumb rubber were low.  Although there are no standards for lead in recycled tire material or synthetic turf, average concentrations were well below the EPA standard for lead in soil...Likewise the average extractable lead concentrations for turf field wipe samples were low.  Although there are no directly comparable standards, average concentrations were well below EPA standards for lead in residential floor dust.”
  5. EHS Circular Letter #2015-02, Re: Recent News Concerning Artificial Turf Fields, State of Connecticut Department of Public Health, January 20, 2015 – “Various media outlets have continued to run this story and a number of local health departments have inquired as to its validity.  Since many Connecticut towns have installed or are considering artificial turf fields an elevated cancer risk would be an important consideration.  However, this news story is still based upon very preliminary information and does not change CTDPH’s position that outdoor artificial turf fields do not represent an elevated health risk…The Connecticut Department of Public Health has evaluated the potential exposures and risks from athletic use of artificial turf fields.  Our study of 5 fields in Connecticut in 2010-2011 was a comprehensive investigation of releases from the fields during active play.  This study was conducted as a joint project with the CT DEEP and the University of CT Health Center and was peer-reviewed by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.  Our study did not find a large amount of vapor or particle release from the fields confirming prior reports from Europe and the US.  We put these exposures into a public health context by performing a risk assessment. Our risk assessment did not find elevated cancer risk…The Connecticut Department of Public Health has evaluated the potential exposures and risks from athletic use of artificial turf fields.  Our study of 5 fields in Connecticut in 2010-2011 was a comprehensive investigation of releases from the fields during active play.  This study was conducted as a joint project with the CT DEEP and the University of CT Health Center and was peer-reviewed by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.  Our study did not find a large amount of vapor or particle release from the fields confirming prior reports from Europe and the US.  We put these exposures into a public health context by performing a risk assessment. Our risk assessment did not find elevated cancer risk…Our risk assessment did cover carcinogens that are known to be in recycled tires and the crumb rubber used to cushion fields.  Once again, we found there to be very little exposure of any substances, carcinogenic or not, in the vapors and dust that these fields generate under active use, summer conditions.  Background levels of chemicals in urban and suburban air from heating sources and automobile traffic are much more significant sources of airborne carcinogens.  The fact that we sampled 5 fields (4 outdoor and 1 indoor) of different ages and composition suggests that the results can be generalized to other fields, a conclusion supported by the fact that results were similar to what was found in California, USEPA and European studies..  Our study did not evaluate ingestion of the crumb rubber itself as players are unlikely to ingest an entire rubber pellet.  However, two studies, one in California and one at Rutgers University did evaluate the cancer risk if children ingested a mouthable chunk of playground rubber (10 gram), using laboratory extraction methods to estimate the amount of chemicals that might become available in the stomach and absorbed into the body.  Both studies found very low cancer risk from this scenario (Cal OEHHA 2007; Pavilonis et al. 2014).  Thus, CT DPH finds no scientific support for a finding of elevated cancer risk from inhalation or ingestion of chemicals derived from recycled tires used on artificial turf fields.  US EPA has a similar position: “At this point, EPA does not believe that the field monitoring data collected provides evidence of an elevated health risk resulting from the use of recycled tire crumb in playgrounds or in synthetic turf athletic fields.”   “In summary, federal and state authorities have taken seriously the concerns that artificial turf fields may present a health risk due to contaminants in recycled rubber.  The best way to investigate these concerns is via an exposure investigation.  Studies conducted in Connecticut and elsewhere have shown a very low exposure potential, less than from typical outdoor sources of air pollution.  The current news reports of a list of soccer players with cancer does not constitute a correlation or causality and thus raises a concern that currently lacks scientific support.   Thus, the CT DPH position expressed in 2011 at the conclusion of the Connecticut study, that outdoor artificial turf fields do not represent an elevated health risk, remains unchanged.” 

Based on the above sampling of facts provided from a reasonable cross-section of objective health organizations and other governmental agencies and notably devoid of any lobbies or industry groups, one must conclude that the installation and use of artificial turf fields presents health risks to players, coaches and fans that are no greater than natural turf fields.

Conclusions and Recommended Actions

Any actions suggested by City agencies and voted on by the Common Council should have in mind the best interests of the City of Middletown and its residents.  In this case, the Common Council is being shouldered with the responsibility to put forth a referendum to the residents of the City that will fund improvements and renovations to the City’s parks, recreation and athletic facilities such that the City’s residents can enjoy premier facilities that can reasonably be expected to accommodate all current and future demands for use by the City’s many athletic programs.  The vote on Monday August 24th, 2015 to specifically exclude artificial turf fields from the improvement program flies in the face of the recommendations of the Public Works Department and those of Milone & MacBroom.  The vote was purported to address environmental and health concerns that are based on emotion and hearsay.  Although it might be hard to argue the pleasure of using a well manicured and maintained natural turf field, the reality is that offering a sufficient number of such fields, absent the building of a number of additional natural turf fields, is not viable under the existing plan and bonding referendum.  
When considered from a practical and pragmatic perspective, the installation of a balanced number of artificial and natural turf fields, as was the case in original the bond referendum language, is the most beneficial approach to improvements for the City’s parks and athletic facilities.

I call on Mayor Dan Drew and Council Members Bartolotta, Kasper, Kleckowski, Streeto and Santangelo to propose a Request to Reconsider so that the full Council can evaluate the language and vote on legislation that takes into consideration the objectives of the program, the fact-based risks and the impacts to any changes to the original language.  I also ask the Council to fully evaluate the documentation provided by the Planning and Zoning Commission, much of which was referenced in this letter, and to work with appropriate resources to either propose adoption of the originally worded referendum or offer an alternative that would ensure that the original objectives of the program can be met.

Lastly, I call on all City residents to become fully informed of the needs, benefits, and fact-based risks associated with this improvement program.  The $37 million for this proposed program is not a small amount of money.  The benefits to the City go well beyond available playing time to increased property values, increased bond ratings, increased revenue to local businesses and thus increased tax revenues.


Darrell Ponzio


Anonymous said...

How do you get increased bond ratings from borrowing $37M dollars? This is an outrageous amount of money! We borrow to pave roads, we borrow to meet the budget, now we're borrowing to fix baseball fields? Let's try a pay as you go deal. Fix up the fields one at a time and pay for it from the current tax base, with NO borrowing, and NO increase in Taxes. There's a NEW concept!

John Milardo said...

I guess you can get as many pro-artificial turf reports as you can con. Put that aside, and there still is the issue of increased injuries to players as well as maintenance costs. The initial cost of constructing of an artificial turf field will negate any perceived savings related to maintenance. The maintenance cost difference of artificial versus natural turf is between $5-$8 thousand per field/per year. The City already has all the equipment and knowledge for the upkeep of natural fields. What is lacking is proper budget funding and the number of department personnel needed to do a proper job.
No matter if every field was artificial turf, the current work force would be concentrating all their efforts on the upkeep of athletic fields. Nothing else would receive any attention or funding, as currently occurs.
Several years ago, the City was sold a bill of goods that all youth soccer needed was to have the taxpayers chip in for the fields at Country Club and Longhill Roads and they would use very few City fields. What happened?
I don't know if it still is the case, but both soccer and little league did not want to use certain fields on a regular basis because they were too far from the center of town, or in the center of town. We also had game fields and practice fields policy (list), which helped out immensely for improvement to all game fields...for a while. Then both leagues would ignore the policy, and complain about field conditions.
How can the City pay for an increase in materials and personnel for the Parks Division? Well, our city fathers are bonding everything now a days, so if they leave the extra $10 million dollars in the current bond for natural turf, they could use that money for the Parks Division....only!
You say that is illegal or unethical? Not really. In road bonds the City pays for the Public Works Departments overtime for curbing and backfilling, catch basins, etc., from the bond. So there is precedent to follow.
Here's a novel idea. How about curtailing the number of bodies who play in the leagues, and match them to a schedule which is conducive to the number of fields available. Something has to give. The City doesn't have additional land to build more fields on, and the locations of many of the sites our fields are currently on belong either to the State of Connecticut or Board of Education.
The only pro-artificial turf comment I agree with is that if it rains, you can play on the field immediately. If that is the only concern, that's a high price the taxpayer is being asked to pay for a few rain dates that are already incorporated into all athletic schedules.
Just a thought!

Middletown Eye (Ed McKeon) said...

Thanks for your well-considered, and well-expressed thoughts on the topic.

The mayor has offered a compromise, that I think works toward having enough fields, and preserving the actual turf.

Anonymous said...

I agree with our mayor and Ed McKeon. They offer common sense, practical reasons with what they said. Interesting that the opinion made in 2010 on artificial turf is just that -- 5 years old. Many investigations have produced negative aspects for users of this kind of covering since 2010, and other communities has decided in favor of the real stuff to play on.

Anonymous said...

Prove it. No reports. And ct deep issued its statement in 2015. Cost & maintenance is a legit argument, fear mongering is not.