Artificial Turf Gets a Foothold At High Schools Across Region

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

In high schools in and around Washington, artificial turf is becoming an athletic status symbol.

Synthetic ballfields can be found at 10 public high schools in the District, seven in Anne Arundel County, four in Fairfax County and three in Arlington County. They have been installed at T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Richard Montgomery High in Rockville, North Point High in Waldorf and a host of private and parochial schools. This summer and over the next school year, several more high schools will get artificial turf: Chesapeake and Old Mill in Anne Arundel, Lee in Fairfax, Bell-Lincoln in the District, and Walter Johnson and Montgomery Blair in Montgomery.

In most communities, the prospect of replacing real grass with plastic fiber and bits of shredded tire has prevailed with support from coaches and athletic boosters and little public dissent. But debate has emerged in Montgomery over such matters as how the turf deals were structured and whether tire crumbs from the fields might contaminate property nearby.

"We're finding experts from all over the country saying, 'Hey, this isn't safe,' " said Rosanne Hurwitz, mother of a rising senior at Montgomery Blair. She and other parents have formed a group called the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition.

Many high schools nationwide are turning to artificial turf. Long considered prohibitively expensive for public schools, synthetic turf has gone down in price and up in quality. Some school officials consider it a better investment than grass.

Unlike grass, synthetic turf can survive relentless wear and tear. It can support play in the dead of winter and after a deluge.

"It rained out here an hour ago. Poured," said Bill Curran, director of athletic programs in Fairfax, said last week. "You could go out and play on our athletic fields an hour from now." With artificial turf, he said, "you go from a three-season field -- spring, summer and fall -- to a four-season field."

But the spread of turf to schools and parks has fed some concerns about how fields affect surrounding communities. Last spring, New Jersey officials closed two artificial fields with lead in levels eight to 10 times the quantity the state deemed safe. Some synthetic turf is painted with pigments that contain small amounts of lead, which makes it brighter. (A Montgomery school official said the turf at issue in New Jersey was replaced with the same kind of artificial turf used in the county -- a sign, he said, of the replacement's safety.)

An influential report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission last July found that the lead in some synthetic fields posed no risk to children. But an advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also released last summer, advised "aggressive hand and body washing" after play on an artificial field and suggested clothes worn on the field be taken off and turned inside out.

A study the New York state government released last month found no environmental threat in the ground tire rubber poured into artificial fields to simulate dirt. Nonetheless, the New York City parks department has stopped using crumb rubber in new fields.

Mounting evidence that synthetic fields are safe "has been consistently ignored by those who oppose synthetic turf," said Rick Doyle, president of the trade group Synthetic Turf Council. Such fields now number about 4,500 nationwide, he said.

Last summer, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) held a news conference at Anacostia High School in Southeast Washington to push for environmental tests of synthetic fields at six schools. But Tony Robinson, an official with the D.C. Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, said the public response to artificial turf "has been overwhelmingly and enthusiastically positive." Anne Arundel and Fairfax officials say they have fielded no complaints.

But several parents testified against installing artificial turf at Walter Johnson in Bethesda, a project the Montgomery County Council approved last week. Doctors from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York warned that synthetic fields can reach temperatures of 130 degrees on hot days, inviting heat stroke, and told of neurotoxins and carcinogens in the tire crumbs.

Bill Fitzsimmons, a Potomac homeowner, lives behind St. Andrews Episcopal School. He used to fear flying lacrosse balls. When the school put in artificial turf last year, he began to fear tire dust.

"We've been getting a lot of this dust, and we weren't sure what it was until we started reading these articles," Fitzsimmons said. "I'm concerned about my health and my neighbors' health."

Critics questioned how the contract was awarded for the $1.2 million Walter Johnson turf project; school officials say they used a national bidding system that meets state law. A blogger pointed out that the school recently laid new sod on its natural grass field, which soon will be uprooted. Officials say the sod will be replanted.

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