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Artificial turf, like this surface at Dunbar High School’s field in Baltimore, is valued by school districts because of its easy and affordable upkeep, but health advocates have questioned its safety. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

P.G. lawmakers, environmentalists clash over turf fields

ANNAPOLIS — State legislators from Prince George’s County will push for artificial turf fields in every high school in the county for the third time this coming session, but they are expected to be met with strong resistance from a group of natural-grass advocates.

Delegate Jay Walker and Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, both representing Prince George’s, want to upgrade athletic facilities at every county high school.

Their efforts last session failed when House Bill 1013 was caught up in the House Appropriations Committee.

Walker and Peters plan to introduce the same bill in the 2015 General Assembly session.

The bill would require 21 Prince George’s high school athletic fields to be upgraded to artificial turf by 2020. Previous versions also had five-year timeframes.

Installation of each field was estimated to cost $600,000 to $750,000, according to last year’s fiscal note.

“Our neighbors have turf fields and we don’t,” Peters said. “We need to get competitive.”

FieldTurf has installed about 350 to 400 artificial turf fields in Maryland, said sales manager John McShane III, whose sales region includes Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

McShane said turf fields are “way safer” and provide a consistent surface for all sports. FieldTurf products feature cryogenically broken up rubber granules, McShane said.

Many Maryland high schools feature artificial turf on their fields, and more are installing them.

“Some school systems are 100 percent artificial turf,” Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association Executive Director Ned Sparks said. “They’re adding them all the time.”

But some Marylanders are opposed to the use of some artificial turf.

The biggest issue they have with artificial turf fields is the use of crumb rubber — tiny rubber granules made of shredded tires. Crumb rubber comes from recycled tires and acts as an infill on artificial turf fields.

The lightweight, gnat-sized pieces of black rubber can find their way into everything from cleats to mouths and noses. Simply brushing a hand across a field with a crumb rubber base can cause hundreds of the granules to pop up into the air.

In order to understand how crumb rubber fields affect people, someone needs to collect data on players’ health, urged natural grass proponent Gail Condrey, of Kensington.

“Nobody’s tracking that at an ongoing level and nobody is measuring the effect of this toxic brew on our kids,” she said.

Condrey is a volunteer with the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition in Maryland, which “focuses on the physical human and environmental health risks” of artificial turf.

An NBC News report in October featured University of Washington women’s soccer associate head coach Amy Griffin and her list of 38 soccer players nationwide who were diagnosed with various cancers.

The players and Griffin suspected crumb rubber as a primary culprit for the high numbers of soccer players with cancer diagnoses.

The report garnered attention from all over the country and some people, schools, and organizations questioned the safety of crumb rubber.

“I understand the knee-jerk reaction,” McShane said. “All I ask is people do the research, take a breath and make a conscious decision.”

He said choosing a field type is simply weighing pros and cons.

“At the end of the day, every single product we use is safe,” McShane said.

Totally organic options are available, though at a higher costs, according to McShane.

Cork, coconut and rice husks are natural alternatives, but are more expensive to install and maintain, said McShane.

McShane said those organic alternatives to crumb rubber often require irrigation and also have minimum moisture content requirements, which the rubber-based fields do not.

In Montgomery County, the city of Gaithersburg reopened the public soccer field at Lakelands Park in October. The new field is turf, but is made of cork and rice and coconut husks.

The bill does not include language regarding what materials must be used when installing artificial turf fields, but Peters said he and Walker are “open to amendments.”

Peters said the school systems would choose their own contractors and materials.

“We feel it’s important to monitor these things,” Sparks said. “Right now, there’s no reason not to use (artificial turf fields), so we wouldn’t take a stance at this time.”

While tires and tire disposal are strictly regulated by state law, crumb rubber is not treated the same way.

“If you are caught putting a tire in a stream, you get fined,” Condrey said. “Once they pulverize the tires,” they aren’t regulated the same way, she said.