Synthetic Turf Gains Ground at Fairfax Parks

This synthetic field at Mason District Park in Annandale  opened last November.
This synthetic field at Mason District Park in Annandale opened last November. (Bymatthew Kaiser)
By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007

Fairfax County's move from natural grass to artificial turf is accelerating with the opening of four synthetic fields in the past two weeks and four more in the works, park officials said.

The Fairfax County Park Authority converted two natural grass fields to synthetic turf at Poplar Tree Park in Chantilly and two at South Run District Park in Springfield late last month. Construction is underway on synthetic fields at Lake Fairfax Park in Reston and Patriot Park in Fairfax, and two synthetic fields funded by park bonds will be built soon at Hutchinson Elementary School in Herndon and Carl Sandburg Middle School in the Alexandria section of the county, said John R. Lehman, a supervising project manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority.

Following a national trend, park officials said that moving to synthetic fields is a key strategy when the public's demand for playing fields is growing and the county's concentrated development has made open space harder to find and more expensive. Judy Pedersen, a spokeswoman for the Park Authority, said the county plans to have 18 synthetic fields by 2010.

But as more schools and parks turn to synthetic fields, concerns persist about their safety, with some blaming artificial turf for more injuries and saying that they may play a role in the spread of drug-resistant bacteria. Others question whether society should be investing in rubber playing fields when grass could help in the fight against global warming and reduce the use of carbon. Some Fairfax County residents complain about the cost of synthetic surfaces and wonder whether they will intensify the use of playing fields in their neighborhoods, resulting in more traffic and noise.

Facing a shortage of rectangular playing fields, the Park Authority set aside about $10 million from a 2006 bond referendum to convert 12 grass fields to synthetic turf.

Park officials see these advantages: Synthetic fields are about twice as expensive to install as turf fields but are more durable and economical over the long term. They require less routine maintenance. Games can proceed on synthetic turf that otherwise might be canceled for fear of tearing up a grass field after a rainstorm. Even in good weather, synthetic fields can hold up to continued pounding caused by a heavy schedule of activities. The region's climate is not optimal for grass, either.

"With synthetic surface fields, you can get year-round play," said acting Park Authority director Tim White. "You can increase the use of that field by 62 percent."

Atlas Track & Tennis, an Oregon company, did the work on all four new fields, using surfaces manufactured by Montreal-based FieldTurf. The fields, costing an average of $800,000 each, were paid through Park Authority bond proceeds and Fairfax County funds. A high-quality grass field with proper irrigation and drainage systems costs about $450,000 to install, Lehman said.

FieldTurf, which uses a layered surface over a mixture of sand and rubber to simulate natural playing fields, has installed surfaces for several sports, including football, soccer, baseball, rugby and golf, and on playgrounds. Twenty-one NFL and many NCAA teams use the fields, according to the company's Web site. A company spokesman said there are now 2,400 in the United States.

With the four new fields, Fairfax County has eight public synthetic fields, including two made with all-rubber synthetic surfaces produced by Ontario-based Sportexe, Lehman said.

In 2006, a survey of NFL players by their union found an overwhelming preference for grass over turf and a prevailing belief that synthetic fields contributed to more injuries and career-shortening injuries. (The survey found that 94.6 percent of Washington Redskins players prefer to play on grass.) Research studies of injuries sustained by soccer and football players on artificial and natural turf have been less conclusive. A 1999 German study found that although the types of injuries differed, the frequency and severity did not.

Darren Gill, director of marketing for FieldTurf, said its design is a significant improvement over AstroTurf and other earlier synthetic surfaces that were essentially like carpeting. A five-year study of Texas high school football injuries found that although artificial turf was linked to a higher number of injuries than grass, the injuries were less severe, Gill said.

He also said there is no scientific or factual basis to support claims that synthetic turf harbors drug-resistant bacteria known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. He cited a Penn State University study of 20 synthetic fields that found no trace of MRSA.

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