Grass-roots gripes about artificial turf in Montgomery County gain traction
County Council wants report by year's end
Faced with numerous concerns from environmental groups and parents, a County Council committee has directed three Montgomery County agencies to work together to weigh the costs, risks and benefits of replacing grass athletic fields with artificial turf.
The Transportation and Environment Committee asked county schools, environmental and parks officials to prepare a report by the end of the year, before bids for a field at Paint Branch High School go out.
Of the 25 public high schools in Montgomery County, three Richard Montgomery, Walter Johnson and Montgomery Blair use artificial fields. Paint Branch High School is slated to get an artificial turf field next year.
At least eight private schools in the county have artificial turf fields, and four more are building or planning them, according to a report prepared for the council. The parks department also is building one in Fairland.
School athletic directors, by and large, have embraced the switch because synthetic fields allow more playing time and predictability for scheduling than does real grass.
But environmental and health concerns, still being examined by federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, led the Mid-County Citizens Advisory Board to ask for a moratorium on installing artificial turf until questions about the fields' safety, environmental and fiscal true costs, and life span are answered.
"Are we making a trade-off to increase the use of fields [and] what are we sacrificing to achieve that?" Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac asked at a committee meeting Thursday.
"It's a huge leap just for them to be asking questions people have been asking them [to do so] for at least a year and a half," said Kathleen M. Michels, a neuroscientist who said she would not let her children play on artificial turf regularly because of health and safety concerns.
Her concerns include the fact that the field surfaces can get very hot on days when the temperature is high, leading county officials to post warning signs on athletic fields.
Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed more than two years ago that high levels of lead were detected in dust from some athletic fields in New Jersey that were made of nylon or nylon and polyethylene blend, while fields made with only polyethylene had low levels of lead.
The company Field Turf installed fields at all three county high schools and is installing the field at Fairland Regional Park. Field Turf representatives have said the carpet is lead-free, council senior legislative analyst Keith Levchenko noted.
As for the studies that exist, they are field-specific and warn against extrapolating from the data, Levchenko said.
A limited EPA study late last year that focused on crumbed rubber from tires, used like dirt as infill with artificial turf, found toxin concentrations "below levels considered harmful."
The EPA, which has said there are gaps in information about risks from artificial turf, is still considering the issue.
"It's challenging to find out fact from fiction" given competing information that sod growers and artificial turf vendors offer about the comparative advantages and disadvantages, Deputy Parks Director Mike Riley told the committee.
Some officials such as Berliner have raised the issue of water runoff from the artificial fields. The school system is not doing water-quality tests on the runoff, said Joe Lavorgna, former facilities director for Montgomery County Public Schools, who has been acting as a consultant to the school system.
Some studies indicate that it is unlikely that toxins would leach at significant levels on well-drained fields where tire crumb does not stand in water long, but the data are limited, and it's not clear whether toxins get into the environment, said Lavorgna and Steve Shofar, chief of watershed management for the county's Department of Environmental Protection.
The parks department estimates that the installation costs for an artificial turf field are about $865,000, with $130,000 in total maintenance costs over 10 years. The parks department estimates preparation or rehabilitation of natural grass fields at $180,000 initially, with $375,000 in total maintenance over 10 years.
With increased revenue available from higher use of artificial fields, the parks estimates the 10-year cost of artificial turf at $282,800 and of real turf at $454,800.