January 26, 2008

DN Article - When Grass Isn't Green

Just for giggles - here is my first article published in the Daily Nebraskan, our student newspaper, on January 17, 2008.

Synthetic turf poses health concerns

On Oct. 31, 2007, The Association of Students of the University of Nebraska passed Senate Resolution 16, which supported Campus Recreation's request for funding of new synthetic turf on the Mable Lee grass fields.

Of the $1.7 million dollar price tag, Campus Recreation requests $600,000 from our student fees.

No one can argue against the utility of these fields. They don't get beat up, worn out or muddy. They don't need mowing, watering, fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

However, despite their color, they most certainly are not "green."

The synthetic turf products, specifically the rubber underlayment made of ground up recycled tires, contains petrochemicals, heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Minor health effects include increases in asthma (from latex allergens and dust), sunstroke and abrasions. Major health effects can include neurological damage and endocrine disruption; the compounds include carcinogens, reprotoxins, mutagens and teratogenic (deformity-causing) effects.

Those are scary words, and their explanations are a lot more scary.

So why would we even consider using this stuff?

Well, the science is incomplete. We know what kind of compounds the turf materials contain. We know they can and do release those compounds into the environment. We know the effects the compounds have on the environment and human health. That's why we don't burn tires anymore and why most landfills won't accept them.

The question is whether these products release enough of the compounds to be dangerous. To make matters worse, scientists have yet to pinpoint exactly how much is too much.

States have set standards for soil and water. PAH levels in rubber granules sampled from synthetic turf fields in New York City were above the concentration at which the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation considers hazardous enough to public health to require their removal from contaminated soil sites. Levels of zinc in these same samples were also above tolerable levels, and lead and arsenic were also present. To be fair, it is possible that PAHs in rubber might not act the same as they do in soil, and their ability to be absorbed by humans or the environment may vary.

These compounds can affect humans through the presence of a soot-like dust, which coats skin and can be inhaled. Testing has revealed, even in extremely well-ventilated sports fields, the proportion of rubber dust in the overall airborne dust sample was between 23.2 percent and 50.1 percent. Compare that to around 7.5 percent found along busy highways.

The Swedish Chemicals Inspectorate recommends that recycled tires not be used in synthetic turf fields. They say high levels of PAHs such as phthalates and phenols which are not chemically bound to the rubber and can leach. They point out that these chemicals are carcinogenic and bioaccumulative.

These chemicals and compounds build up over time. Every new use adds to the cumulative effect. The same is true for the contribution synthetic fields make to stormwater runoff and heat island effects, both significant problems in urban areas. Synthetic fields act the same as an asphalt parking lot, and we all know how pleasant those are on a sunny August afternoon.

Stormwater runoff contributes to flooding when no soil is present to absorb rain and snow, sending it directly into storm drains and requiring large infrastructure development such as the Antelope Valley Project to manage. It also concentrates pollutants into the runoff, damaging our water supplies and harming fish, plants and wildlife.

Heat island effect occurs when the altered surfaces of cities trap heat and release it, warming the surrounding air. Heat island effects increase air temperature, alter weather patterns and can greatly exacerbate dangerous summer heat waves.

Yet, with more than 300 flag football teams last year and fields almost too muddy to play on, Campus Recreation has to do something.

I would imagine that for the extra $1.15 million that the synthetic turf fields will cost, we could come up with something. At $550,000 each we could construct two additional sets of natural turf fields the size of the ones proposed for Mable Lee Fields.

And since 50 acres of university land was recently taken out of the flood plain thanks to the aforementioned Antelope Valley Project, and since the university is diligently lobbying to get our hands on the State Fair Grounds, I'm sure we could find somewhere to build them.

I urge the university to rethink the use of synthetic turf fields. We know this stuff is bad for us, just like car exhaust and ultraviolet radiation is. I don't want to find out how much is too much the hard way, like we did with lead paint, asbestos and DDT.

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