U.S. Investigates Artificial Turf's Lead Levels

Casey McCraith and Frank Washburn relax on the artificial turf park in downtown Silver Spring
Casey McCraith and Frank Washburn relax on the artificial turf park in downtown Silver Spring (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Artificial turf fields in the Washington area and elsewhere may be popular with players and managers who don't have to fret about bumpy terrain or constant upkeep. But now the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is beginning to investigate whether the trendy fields contain lead that could easily rub off and pose health hazards.

The commission's investigation, still in its initial stages, was prompted this month by New Jersey state officials who closed some synthetic sports fields after discovering dangerously high levels of lead. A commission spokesman said yesterday that it is unclear what, if any, threats exist with turf fields, and cautioned that parents should not make any rash choices about avoiding the fields.

"Families should not be scared back into their homes. The health benefits of getting outside and playing are far too great," said Julie Vallese, a commission spokesman. "There's a number of things we have to do and determine. What is the interaction between the person and the product? Are you falling on it? Are you exposed by just walking on it? Is there dust you can inhale? Can the lead transfer to another object?"

In Fairfax County, Al Stephenson, who assigns referees for the McLean Youth Soccer league matches, said yesterday that alarms raised by the commission could delay the league's efforts to convert several fields to artificial turf. Although critics may point to the turf's pulverized rubber tires as the potential source of lead, Stephenson brushed off the concerns.

"I don't have any problem with it. It's just ground up rubber. Kids play on it all over the country," he said. "Everybody plays on it so you don't have to worry about stepping in a hole. Some of these grass fields are in bad shape. Half the time, you're looking at the ground. With the turf field . . . you don't have to pay attention to your footing."

On the McLean Youth Soccer league Web site, http://www.mcleansoccer.org, plans to replace the grass fields are prominently displayed with two photographs of grass and artificial fields, the first labeled "The Problem" and the second "The Solution."

"The majority of our grass playing surfaces are . . . in dreadful condition. . . . The bold initiative is not some distant dream," the Web site says.

Disputes over turf fields have historically centered on their expense and public access, rather than potential negative health effects. In Montgomery County, for instance, community members last month criticized the school system's proposed partnership with a professional soccer team that would finance an artificial turf football field. Parents were upset that that the professional team would get more access to the field than the public.

Controversy over lead-laden fields has also swelled in New York City, where civic groups recently called on the health and parks commissioners to place a moratorium on using the fields in new sports parks.

Christian DiPalermo, the executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, said the crushed tire bits used for the fields easily rub off on people. "If I put a piece of synthetic turf on your desk, then I take it away, these pieces of recycled tires will be sitting on your desk," DiPalermo said. "The question is, how does that pose a health risk to young children? Kids are bringing this into their homes. It's on their sneakers."

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