By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
Some parents at Silver Gate Elementary School in Point Loma are leading an uphill battle against artificial turf that is supposed to be installed on the school’s playing field next Fall. And other beach area activists have been fighting the artificial turf wars for a few years now.
Writer Ashly McGlone, in a fairly exhaustive piece in Voice of San Diego published June 27th, captured the highlights of one of those battles in describing efforts of some parents at Silver Gate.
McGlone focused on Point Loma resident Erika Lundeen, who became concerned to hear that the school her kids attend, Silver Gate, was getting a new artificial turf field called “crumb rubber”. It’s a type of artificial turf made up of particles from crushed-up car tires which act as a cushion and is used as a filler between blades of artificial grass. And this FieldTurf is what San Diego Unified uses – and plans to use on dozens of playing fields around the District.
Lundeen had seen local kids covered in little black specks on their clothes and bodies after rolling around in the turf at a field at Loma Portal Elementary School, with some kids playing with the black stuff.
So, as McGlone documented, Lundeen turned to the internet and began researching crumb rubber news articles. She found very disturbing information about Washington state soccer players who play on crumb rubber fields diagnosed with lymphoma, leukemia and other types of cancer. A college researcher has even begun documenting this trend in an online database, which now includes over 220 names, mainly soccer players under 26 years of age with cancer who played on the crumb rubber.
Plus she found research from governmental agencies that throws up red flags around this turf. There’s still a lot of uncertainly scientifically and medically about the health risks of using this type of turf. And the heat – direct sunlight on the crumb rubber heats it up to unbearable levels for kids and athletes in their shoes.
Lundeen took action. Upon hearing that her son’s school was moving ahead, she lobbied for a moratorium, she created a facebook group – and she created 2 online petitions – one for Silver Gate and the second for the entire District. She tried persuading school board members and the principal to halt or question the stuff.
Here’s what Lundeen’s online petition states:
Tire crumb, or crumb rubber is finely ground up pieces of car and truck tires. Tires contain heavy metals, known carcinogens, and other toxic substances.
Our young children ages 5-10, their small developing bodies being the most vulnerable to chemical exposure, have a high possibility of ingesting these pieces or coming into dermal contact with them. Crumb rubber artificial turf is not deemed safe for our children to be exposed to by any federal agency, nor is it an environmentally friendly product.
This type of artificial turf is set to be installed at Silver Gate by October 2016, with a finish date of January 2017. There are alternative non-toxic infills to use in artificial turf, or the option of going to natural turf. Let’s ban crumb rubber at our school and let our district know that we want a safe, non-toxic, environmentally friendly turf for our children to play on.
Parents with children at Silver Gate and the school’s staff are urged to sign:
We, the parents and staff of Silver Gate Elementary, do not want an artificial turf with a crumb rubber infill installed at our school site. We want our district to give us options in infills for artificial turf, or discuss using natural turf.
Some of the reaction Lundeen received, as told by McGlone:
“Silver Gate Principal Maria Fowler took the issue to the school’s governance team,” promising if a majority of the group wanted the new turf field, things would proceed. The team assembled on June 8th and had their discussion “in a classroom just a stone’s throw away from the field, which currently consists of decomposed granite.”
One parent in attendance but not on the governance team “said his daughter and her friends are excited about the new field,” but questioned why Silver Gate currently had a dirt field?
One of the PE teachers “expressed support for the change, saying the current surface is uneven and a hazard,” that the kids fall and get scraped up getting “really bad chemicals” from the dirt field.
A grandmother of one of the students told the panel:“I don’t buy the argument it’s [rubber crumb turf] the lesser of two evils.”.
Another parent was opposed to the new turf, citing health concerns. He told the panel:
“Go rub your nose in it, and then I want you to go eat a sandwich without washing your hands and see how you feel.”
One parent – a gunnery sergeant in the Marines – explained the heat hazards of the artificial turf – telling the team:
“Up at MCAS Miramar, they have this crumb rubber. I have worked out on it, and I’ve taken my Marines to work out on it.
The heat is a huge factor. It can get to a point where you can get first degree burns. If you are trying to do anything with exposed skin, such as pushups, sit-ups, anything like that in the full light of day, it will get to a heat where people are getting burned.”
Then, the principal gave her opinion, saying “she was comfortable with her own children playing on the field, and pointed out other potentially cancer-causing agents the public is already exposed to, like chlorine in pools and sewage in San Diego Bay.”
In the end, the panel voted 8 to 1 for the crumb rubber installation at Silver Gate.
Even though Lundeen’s efforts have failed to budge the unpersuaded at Silver Gate, McGlone emphasized extremely important points about the issue:
- In February 2016, federal agencies (EPA, CDC, and consumer protection agency) announced the launch of a joint study on the safety of recycled tire crumb in fields and playgrounds, saying existing studies do not adequately evaluate the health risks of tire crumb exposure. The agencies plan to publish their findings by the end of 2016.
- The US Consumer Protection Commission has now retreated on their 8 year old declaration that the artificial turfs are safe. Commission chair stated: “‘Safe to play on’ means something to parents that I don’t think we intended to convey and I don’t think we should have conveyed.”
- In June, our own state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has also begun its own three-year, $3 million crumb rubber safety study.
- There are more than 900 artificial turf fields across California.
- After public pressure, both LA Unified and the city of New York halted the use of rubber in fields.
Yet – as McGlone states:
… San Diego Unified is forging ahead with plans for 55 new artificial fields by 2019. Costs typically run from $350,000 to over $1 million, for a total cost of at least $19 million.
Incidentally, writer McGlone also described a very similar scenario at an elementary school in University City but with a different outcome when a group of parents mobilized over the same issue last fall, a story that is worth following.
In the meantime, a local Pacific Beach activist has also raised serious issues about why San Diego Unified School District is spending money on the artificial turf fields instead of improving classrooms.
Micaela Porte – in an open letter to the District – quotes local people that she has spoken with about the crumb rubber artificial turf over the past year:
“I hear it’s only the goalies getting sick” – a member of San Diego school board
“They told us it was made out of old tennis shoes.” -PTO mother of Mission Bay High School student
“You shouldn’t pay attention to the news.” -employee of Pacific Beach Middle School
“They told us it is only bad if you eat the stuff.” – junior MBHS Girls’ lacrosse team.
“His feet burn through his shoes when he plays on these fields, they are so hot.” – parent of PB Middle schooler who chose not to play soccer anymore.
Crumb rubber artificial turf fields are big business for the SDUSD these days, and every school is getting one, thanks to the billion dollar bond measure for school upgrades and a “build on demand”; maintenance contract with a single supplier, Field Turf Corporation. The principle advantages of artificial turf fields are: all weather playability, more intensive use playability, low maintenance.
She goes on:
NO studies in the collection of reports to clients presented by Field Turf about the safety of this product say it is “perfectly safe” to play on.
ALL the reports say, in regards to possible toxic chemical exposure from these artificial turf fields: “acceptable risk.”
All the reports admit limited results and recommend that more studies should be done.
I protest that the San Diego Unified School District is ignoring this risk factor, considering the information that is available, and the growing protest among parents wanting real answers, not limited corporate reports… I protest using our children as guinea pigs in the controversial use of this product. I protest the non-diffusion of potential risks to the students who play sports on these fields.
Why is the SDUSD prioritizing sports fields and swimming pools for mixed use with the general public before improvements to the classrooms for the comfort, security and educational benefit our students and teachers? including air conditioning, which the “beach schools” are last on the list to obtain (as it is “cooler on the coast”;..except when it is as hot as anywhere.) We are getting multi-use sports complexes first, classroom improvements last.
Our children will be playing on these burning hot fields in the hot afternoons, and the YMCA who is leasing the PB Middle school school grounds for $1.00 (one dollar) for a multi-use public/private sports complex, will rent out a cooler, more comfortable field experience to the evening adult sports leagues until 10pm.
I think our kids are getting the short, and burning hot, end of this deal.
Artificial turf fields cost about a million dollars to install.
They also have regular maintenance costs, just like grass fields, including regular microbial disinfections with heavy chemicals (as the fields may act like Petri dishes for infectious propagation), restocking of lost infill, the crumb rubber pellets that get diffused through play into athletes clothes and shoes and hair, and wash away with rains, or swept away by maintenance.
Water irrigation systems in fields with elevated temperatures and sunshine, like San Diego, still allow that the rubber fields may melt and deform in hot weather, reaching internal and surface temperatures of over 100 degrees.
In Southern California we delude ourselves that we are switching to artificial turf to save water, so it is kind of ironic.
Crumb rubber Artificial turf fields were introduced in the late 1990 and invented by the Dutch to increase the playing year in northern climates. They were first advertised to last 20 years, but reality has shown that they last 10 years, especially in direct sunlight.
Visible tar-looking degradation is often the result after time like the field at La Jolla High installed in 2000, now being replaced after years of complaints, or deformations in surface due to differing materials composition as there are no standard federal or international controls on the raw materials for this product, basically old tires.
Studies show that it is actually cheaper to maintain grass fields over time than artificial turf fields. And they show that grass fields are healthier for children to play on, and most doctors agree. Also professional athletes prefer grass fields to play on for many reasons, citing more injuries and fatigue, worse abrasion burns with artificial turf fields.
Porte also states that studies show that microscopic filaments in tires, present in decomposed crumb rubber, are similar to asbestos filaments.
And she ends her plea to the School Board:
Please make better choices for our schools, and our children. We have the weather to grow playable natural grass year round, and our children deserve the best, don’t you think? Other options? Sonoma County used natural coconut fiber as infill instead of crumb rubber.
Or better still, focus out school tax money on education and our teachers and students, not the sports industry.
Obviously, with grassroots activists like Erika Lundeen – the Silver Gate mom – and Micaela Porte – the PB activist, it’s clear that this issue isn’t going away. Au contraire, mon ami.