Feds promote artificial turf as safe despite health concerns
Lead levels high enough to potentially harm children have been found in artificial turf used at thousands of schools, playgrounds and day-care centers across the country, yet two federal agencies continue to promote the surfacing as safe, a USA TODAY analysis shows. The growing use of turf fields layered with rubber crumbs has raised health concerns centered mostly on whether players face increased risk of injury, skin infection or cancer. The U.S. has more than 11,000 artificial turf fields, which can cost $1 million to replace.
But largely overlooked has been the possible harm to young children from ingesting lead in turf materials, and the federal government’s role in encouraging their use despite doing admittedly limited research on their health safety. Lead is a well-known children’s hazard that over time can cause lost intelligence, developmental delays, and damage to organs and the nervous system.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission, charged with protecting children from lead in consumer products, has promoted turf-and-rubber fields for nearly seven years with a website headline declaring them “OK to install, OK to play on.” A news release says, “Young children are not at risk from exposure to lead in these fields,” even though the commission found potentially hazardous lead levels in some turf fibers and did not test any rubber crumbs, which are made from recycled tires that contain roughly 30 hazardous substances including lead.
The health threat is substantial enough that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists artificial turf as one of seven sources of children’s lead exposure along with well-known items such as paint, water and toys. The CDC in 2008 said communities should test recreational areas with turf fibers made from nylon, and they should bar children younger than 6 from the areas if the lead level exceeded the federal limit for lead in soil in children’s play areas.
But some communities have refused to test their fields, fearing that a high lead level would generate lawsuits or force them to replace and remove a field, which costs about $1 million, according to a 2011 New Jersey state report. Forty-five of 50 New Jersey schools and towns contacted in 2009 by epidemiologist Stuart Shalat would not let him test their turf-and-rubber fields, Shalat’s report states. The EPA also found, in 2009, that “it was difficult to obtain access and permission to sample at playgrounds and synthetic turf fields.”