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New York State Looking at Artificial Turf Hazards

May 1, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Last month, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) began reviewing possible risks linked to lead with artificial turf currently installed in schools, parks, and stadiums nationwide.  The artificial turf industry denied its products are dangerous.  But, health officials closed down two fields in New Jersey after detecting what they found to be unexpectedly high levels of lead in the synthetic turf, raising concerns that athletes could swallow or inhale fibers or dust from the playing surface.

In recent years, dozens of fields have been installed across Long Island and the New York state environmental agency is initiating a study to assess the environmental impact of ground-up tires used in modern synthetic turf fields.  Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) officials became involved when state lawmakers raised concerns about potentially toxic and carcinogenic components—arsenic, cadmium, lead, zinc—in the rubber crumbs cushioning the fields and if these chemicals leach into groundwater or vaporize into inhalable gases.  "We don't know what the environmental implications are for the long term," said Assemblyman Steve Englebright (Democrat-Setauket), who sponsored a bill calling for a six-month moratorium on the turf pending a comprehensive study.

Most new turf fields contain scrap tires because they require little maintenance and hold up under both heavy rain and extended play.   At least 60 fields have been installed on Long Island since 2001, according to LandTek, an Amityville synthetic turf distributor.  New York City also has a number of crumb rubber fields and there are about 150 statewide, said DEC spokeswoman Maureen Wren.  Its study will use laboratory and field tests to assess whether rubber crumbs leach toxins into groundwater or release volatile chemicals into the air; the study is expected to be completed by year end.

Health researchers are also reviewing existing literature on crumb rubber fields, said Health Department spokeswoman Claudia Hutton.  Artificial turf manufacturers say the playing surfaces pose no risk to children or athletes, citing European government studies and those funded by turf and sports industry groups.  Little independent research has been conducted in the US on the potential health and environmental consequences of crumb rubber.  "We know the chemicals are there," said Dr. Philip Landrigan, chairman of the Department of Community and Preventive Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan.  "Where the debate really settles is whether they're getting from the fields into the kids, and whether they pose an actual hazard."

Scrutiny of artificial turf increased earlier last month, with news of high lead levels in older AstroTurf fields in New Jersey and Syracuse, which do not contain crumb rubber.  According to the Synthetic Turf Council, there are approximately 3,500 synthetic playing fields made of various materials—including nylon and polyethylene—nationwide; about 800 are installed annually at schools, colleges, parks, and stadiums.  Use of artificial turf has grown exponentially in recent years and is seen as a way to cut costs and water use.  But, lead chromate pigment is sometimes used to make the grass green and maintain its color in sunlight.  It remains unclear how widely the compound is used. The New Jersey Health Department found lead in both of the nylon fields it tested which were Astro Turf brand surfaces.

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