Artificial Turf Fields Forum - May 2nd, 2023

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Forum held in the town hall auditorium,

I'll start with some background information. The Archdiocese of Boston is planning to sell six acres of undeveloped land in Arlington, which is adjacent to Poet's Corner. Belmont Hill School is interested in purchasing the property, and working with the town to develop an athletic field that spans the church property and (town-owned) Poet's Corner. Belmont Hill School insists on having a synthetic turf field.

At the same time, a group of residents has filed a warrant article that would place a two-year moratorium on the installation of artificial turf fields on town-owned land. They're concerned about environmental impacts. On the other side, folks involved in youth sports leagues are concerned that a moratorium would derail the opportunity for a new athletic field in town.

Locally, this we've begun referring to this tension as "the turf wars".

(Sandy Pooler, Town Manager) Mr. Pooler opens the forum. He says there's a broad range of opinions about artificial turf, and probably a lot to learn. We says we're in a learning phase. There will be a question and answer session later in the evening, and Mr. Pooler reminds attendees that questions end in a question mark. He sees this discussion as part of an ongoing process.

(Moderator) The moderator says she's from the Consensus Institute, and she understands that artificial turf is a tense topic in town. This forum is a small part of the conversation. Tonight, we're going to try to stick to science. One of the goals is to surface areas where there's agreement and disagreement.

We start by having the panelists introduce themselves.

(Susan Chapnick, Conservation Commission) Ms. Chapnick says the Conservation Commission protects and manages wetlands and conservation land. State law protects eight interests of water bodies, and our local bylaws protect additional interests and functions. Arlington's local laws are stricter than the state's, and require compliance with climate change resiliency standards. To date, the Commission has permitted two artificial turf fields in Arlington. The Commission also discussed the Belmont Hill proposal during their January 5th meeting.

(Phil Lasker, Parks and Recreation Commission) Mr. Lasker says that his commission creates both passive and active recreation opportunities. He supports the use of artificial turf fields, and says that Arlington's athletic fields are massively overused. Around 7000 kids participate in youth sports, and there's not enough field time to go around. Turf can be used in all kinds of weather, and one turf field is the equivalent of three grass fields in terms of playing time. He says that turf fields have reduced maintenance costs, and all of the fields are tested by labs. Natural fields are not tested. He says we have an opportunity to transform Poet's Corner, in collaboration with the Belmont Hill School. However, the new field must be synthetic turf, in order for Belmont Hill to fund the work.

(Sandy Pooler) Mr. Pooler explains that an upcoming town meeting will consider an article that would establish a two-year moratorium on the installation of artificial turf, which he opposes. He's already put a study period in place for the rest of his term as Town Manager. Mr. Pooler says there are a number of issues to consider, several of which pertain to the site. Poet's corner was a former landfill, which was capped in the 1970s. This will come before town meeting in the fall, in order to authorize a land swap. The next Town Manager will have to decide how to go forward with that.

(Natasha Waden, Health Department) Ms. Waden says the Board of Health protects public health in the town of Arlington. There are three members on the board. The Health Department is a professionally staffed department within Health and Human Services. The Board of Health reviewed information on artificial turf. At their April 23rd meeting, they made a decision not to support the moratorium. The board would prefer to see these installations reviewed on a case by case basis. The Board of Health would support a study committee.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says she's on this panel as an environmental chemist. Her company's clients include engineering firms and regulatory agencies. They also help develop climate change risk assessments.

(Jeff Gentile, Firefly Sports) Mr. Gentile works for Firefly Sports, and they do field testing. They test fields all over the country, and their clients include the new England Patriots and the University of Oregon.

(Laura Greene, Green Toxicology) Ms. Green is a chemist and a toxicologist. She started as a lecturer at MIT, then went on to found two companies. The first one performed work for the EPA, and the second was Green Toxicology.

(Wendy Heiger-Bernays, BU school of public health) Ms. Heiger-Bernays is a researcher at the BU School of Public Health. Her research is funded by BU and the NIH.

(Rachel Massey, UMass Lowell) Ms. Massey is a researcher at UMass Lowell. She does research on artificial turf and grass fields.

(David Nardone) Mr. Nardone is a landscape architect and an athletic facility designer. He's worked with Arlington schools, the Belmont Hill School, and many colleges. He also coaches lacrosse.

(Jay Peters, Haley and Aldrich) Mr. Peters is a risk assessor, who evaluates chemical exposure and risk profiles. He worked on a park project for Lexington and Lincoln.

Those are the introductions. Now, we move to panelist presentations.

(David Nardone) Mr. Nardone wants to answer the question "what is artificial turf". It starts with a drainage base, which is usually site-specific. The other components are a shock pad, carpet, and infill. The carpet is the shag surface, and the carpet and infill are attached to a backing material. The infill material tends to be sand, and it weights the carpet down. The infill is topped off with rubber, which often comes from recycled car tires. There are other types of plastic and rubber infill material; these require less maintenance than natural infill materials. Natural infill materials typically include wood, coconut husks, walnut shells. A shock pad sits below this layer, and above the drainage base. All of these materials work together as a system.

(Rachel Massie) Ms. Massie wants to start with health risks. Children are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals than adults. The factors to consider are hazard, exposure, and risk, where risk is an estimate of excessive disease burden. She says that crumb rubber infill from recycled tires contains around 350 different chemicals, including heavy metals and PCBs. So far, she hasn't been able to find any infill material that's free of concerns.

(Wendy Heiger-Bernays) Ms. Heiger-Bernays says there's been much made about PFAS. PFAS are a large group of chemicals and they accumulate in the body. Only 6 of the approximately 12k PFAS compounds are regulated by the EPA. She says there are no PFAS-free synthetic fields. Synthetic fields have several physical hazards, including heat, abrasions, and burns. These lead to safety concerns. The town of Burlington regulates the use of synthetic fields based on temperature.

(Jay Peters) Mr. Peters says that the chemicals in crumb rubber are in nearly everything that's made from either plastic or rubber. The question is how do they get into our bodies. PFAS exists in background conditions everywhere, even in remote areas.

(Jeff Gentile) Mr. Gentile says there are hundreds of tests used to evaluate synthetic fields. We look at things like the effects on head impacts, and ball reactions. The tolerances vary by sport. Head/surface interaction tests are used to gauge the risk of head injury. They also test for under-foot interaction; the idea is to mimic the way a natural field responds. Ball interaction tests are used to determine whether the ball will play the same way as a natural surface. Mr. Gentile says that each sport has its own certification process, with different amounts of time for how long a certification lasts.

(Laura Green) Ms. Green says there are guidelines to protect players health. Heat exposure is usually measured in terms of wet bulb temperatures.

Next, we move to environmental considerations.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says this is really about sustainability. Artificial turf is not impervious; it's designed to drain vertically. A typical turf field can handle up to 10" of rain per hour. Turf fields don't require irrigation, fertilizers, or pesticides. This reduces maintenance. Crumb rubber comes from recycled tires, which means it diverts tires from landfills.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says there are wetland areas near Arlington's turf and grass fields. Chemicals can leach out of the turf and make their way into groundwater and wetlands. PFAS also leaches from turf. Ms. Chapnick says that pesticide and herbicide use can be mitigated by organic management practices. She says that artificial turf provides no habitat. Arlington Catholic High School has an artificial turf field, and they had problems with the infill material migrating out. There are fish that spawn in the Mill Brook, which is 100' away from one of our artificial turf fields, and zinc from recycled tires is toxic to fish.

The next topic is sustainability.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says that artificial turf can't be meaningfully recycled. Trucking it away increases the CO2 footprint. She says that an 80,000 square foot field uses 200 tons of infill, and 20 tons of carpet. These fields only last for ten years. Artificial turf exacerbates heat, and contributes to heat islands. She says that people can't play on artificial turf when it's too warm out.

(David Nardone) Mr. Nardone says that Shaw industries has recycled five million pounds of artificial turf to date, and that other turf manufacturers are implementing recycling programs.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says there are several companies that recycle turf as synthetic lumber.

Next, we have closing statements.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says that all sports fields have their pros and cons, and that all fields should be designed with site-specific considerations in mind. Many of our sports teams support the rehabilitation of Poet's Corner, and we're not the first community to consider using synthetic turf.

(Wendy Heiger-Bernays) Ms. Heiger-Bernays says she's here to share the health, safety, and environmental impacts of synthetic turf. We're asking you to consider facts that may impact your families and neighbors. She says that well-managed organic fields can mitigate these concerns. Play time doesn't show the full set of health risks.

Now, on to questions and answers.

(Moderator) The moderator explains the process for the question and answer session. Attendees can write their questions out and place them in one of the boxes at the back of the room. They'll be drawn at random. Folks who would like to ask questions verbally can write down their name, and place the cards in the "oral questions" box. These will also be drawn randomly. The moderator will alternate between written and oral questions.

Question: to what extent will wetlands on the Archdiocese parcel affect the design of the field.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says that Belmont Hill is doing a wetlands delineation.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says that Belmont Hill has filed a notice of wetland delineation. The Conservation Commission is reviewing this, and planning to get a peer review. Once that's done, they'll make a determination.

Question: Tyler Short asks how the toxicity of turf compares with what's in the soil.

(Wendy Heiger-Bernays) Ms. Heiger-Bernays says there are contaminants in soil, but adding turf just adds to that contamination, which can increase hazards.

(Laura Green) Ms. Green says that turf fields typically require 18" of soil to be excavated, in order to install the multi-layer system. Martha's Vineyard tested soil for their field, and found levels of PFAS and heavy metals.

Question: Can someone clarify the layout of the Poet's corner project?

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says this forum is not about the Poet's Corner project. However, there are materials on the Parks and Recreation Commission's website which show the proposed design.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says she attended the third meeting on Poet's Corner. There are two fields proposed, which is an extensive amount of artificial turf. There will also be woodland restoration involved.

Question: Jordan Weinstein asks if Mr. Lasker should recuse himself because he has a conflict of interest.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says he's a professional who designs athletic fields. The Conservation Commission also has professionals, like environmental toxicologists. He invites Mr. Weinstein to question both sides about their ethics.

(Sandy Pooler) Mr. Pooler says that he and Town Counsel have verified that there are no conflicts of interest.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says there aren't any toxicologists on the Conservation Commission. She says the commission was asked to take a vote on Article 12, but they will not do so.

Question: What will our study discover, that other towns have not already discovered?

(Rachel Massey) Ms. Massey says that many communities have researched artificial turf, and the concerns have increased over time.

(Wendy Heiger-Bernays) Ms. Heiger-Bernays says things often come down to incomplete information. She thinks that artificial turf fields should be compared to natural grass fields.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says that Lexington just did a study, and approved the use of artificial turf. Belmont also did a study and approved. He doesn't think a study in Arlington will find anything different.

Question: Wynelle Evans says that 3M is planning to phase out the use of PFAS. She asks how the town is going to handle a lawsuit, or other legal liability.

(Sandy Pooler) Mr. Pooler says that we'd make a requirement that the field meet applicable safety standards, just as we did with the High School's artificial turf field. We'd try to make our best assessment, based on the scientific evidence available.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says there are strict testing requirements for the high school field. However, the science evolves over time, and we wouldn't be testing for new chemicals.

(Laura Green) Ms. Green says that synthetic turf is essentially plastic shag carpet. 99% of it is polyethylene, and the remainder is mostly dye and stabilizers. It's a fluoral co-polymer, which isn't water soluble.

Question: What are the comparative dollar costs between synthetic and grass fields?

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says there are many different turf systems and drainage needs. It really depends on the field.

(Rachel Massey) Ms. Massey says that artificial turf has costs for installation, some for maintenance, and disposal. She says that grass with modest maintenance costs can last longer.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says that turf is more expensive, due to replacement costs.

Question: There's a question about the demand for fields, relative to use.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says we have grass fields in, or near wetland resource areas.

(Rachel Massie) Ms. Massie says that most organically managed fields meet the needs of their communities.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says that one turf field provides as much playing time as three grass fields, because grass fields need time to rest.

(Joe Connelly, Recreation Department) Mr. Connelly says we don't have enough fields. Managing field time is a huge juggling act.

Question: How much water does a natural field need in a season?

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says that natural fields typically need an inch of water per week.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says it's incorrect to say that artificial turf doesn't need irrigation.

(Rachel Massie) Ms. Massie says there are techniques that can keep water use at a minimum. For example, one can use drones to identify areas of a field that need water, and only water those areas.

Question: Can you talk about organic infill materials, and what they're treated with?

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says they're typically called natural infills. Walnut, pine, and coconut are common materials.

(Laura Green) Ms. Green says that pine infill is typically virgin pine from Florida.

(Rachel Massie) Ms. Massie says that none of the natural infill materials are free of concerns. She says it's mostly a matter of testing to see what chemicals are present, and knowing what chemicals are needed for maintenance.

Question: What are the risks of breathing volatile organic compounds at different temperatures.

(Rachel Massie) Ms. Massie says that higher temperatures generally mean higher levels of exposure.

(Wendy Heiger-Bernays) Ms. Heiger-Bernays says there are studies done, where the athletes wear wristbands to measure exposure.

(Jeff Gentile) Mr. Gentile says there are methods to establish what the material are, and determine levels of exposure.

(Laura Green) Ms. Green says there was a study done in the Netherlands, which involved taking urine samples from players.

Question: In a typical soccer season, how many cases of heat-related illness do we see?

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says he's not aware of any cases.

(Joe Connelly) Mr. Connelly isn't aware of any either.

(?) Heat risk is usually manged by coaches and trainers.

(Wendy Heiger-Bernays) Ms. Heiger-Bernays says this data isn't being gathered, but it should be.

Question: What habitat is at risk at Poet's Corner?

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says this would likely be in areas outside the wetlands delineation. We'd lose any habitat that was in the soil of where the fields were installed.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says that grass fields are a mono-culture, which doesn't provide much habitat.

(?) The impact of a field is proportional to its size.

Question: There's a huge demand for places to play ultimate (frisbee?), but no space to do it. What are the deleterious effects of being sedentary?

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says it would probably mean lots of kids in front of screens, rather than being outdoors.

(Laura Massie) Ms. Massie says that in Springfield, the only weather-related loss of playtime was for baseball. They generally didn't cancel.

Now, it's time for closing statements.

(Susan Chapnick) Ms. Chapnick says we have poorly maintained turf fields, because there isn't enough money to maintain them.

(Wendy Heiger-Bernays) Ms. Heiger-Bernays says that synthetic fields release PBDF, which isn't inert.

(Rachel Massey) Ms. Massey says it's important to look at investing in safer alternatives.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says that artificial turf fields don't require irrigation.

(Laura Green) Mr. Green says that science learns new things all the time, and artificial turf continues to evolve. It's been around since 1964, which is the same year the first youth soccer league was established in the United States. There are 900 youth soccer leagues today. She says her grandkids play on synthetic turf fields in Los Angeles, California. Yes, they're hot, but they're not unsafe.

(Phil Lasker) Mr. Lasker says we'd have to cap youth sports enrollment if we had to use grass fields.