Supplement Feature - September 2009
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Tackling Turf

Finding the Right Turf Solution for Your Fields

By Emily Tipping

Addressing the Concerns

Many players believe that the newest synthetic turf fields reduce injuries, saying it's easier on knees and joints. Others will always prefer natural. Recently, two synthetic turf manufacturers have launched research efforts to look into some of these issues (see Sidebar on page 6), but in the meantime, proper maintenance is the key to reducing risk, no matter which type of field your facility relies on.

And no matter what you do, there will always be detractors—some who feel natural turf is too resource-intensive, others who believe synthetic turf is creating a lead hazard, a risk of heat injury or some other problem.

Whatever the issue, it's important to stay ahead of the buzz, and Peterson said New York has measures in place to monitor any health issues associated with its synthetic fields. "We're working with the New York City Health Department to monitor all those issues, both the temperature and any kind of contamination," he explained. "We're putting in city-wide a protocol with the health department to monitor these synthetic fields in terms of temperature and potential carcinogens and lead that could be in the synthetic materials."

This attention to lead and other potential problems doesn't come from nowhere. In April 2008, concerns came up about lead in synthetic turf when elevated levels were found in several fields in New Jersey. Since that initial report, though, the findings were found inaccurate. As it turns out, the criteria for measuring lead levels in soil were used on those fields, and different criteria entirely are generally used on synthetic turf. The issue was resolved on July 30, 2008, when a U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) evaluation concluded that there's no risk from exposure to lead for young children on synthetic fields.

But just because the CPSC has given its blessing, that doesn't mean the worries have dissipated. In many areas, the public raises concerns when synthetic turf fields are planned.

According to Novak, a little bit of education can go a long way toward resolving these fears. "I like to refer people with concerns to the Synthetic Turf Council Web site, which has a lot of information on both sides of the issue," he said. "The overwhelming weight of evidence tells us that these fields are safe, not only for health and human safety, but for the environment. You look at New York and California, they're probably two of the more conservative states in terms of the way they approach health and human safety and the safety of the environment, and recent reports suggest that these fields are not a concern."

Despite these findings that synthetics are safe, manufacturers are taking voluntary steps to further reduce the presence of lead in synthetic turf products. One company recently announced it was planning to eliminate any intentionally added lead from its synthetic turf products.

Temperature has also been listed as a concern by many. When the summer sun beats down on the synthetic turf field during the summer, it can raise temperatures to what some consider dangerous levels. Peterson said the New York City parks department has been paying close attention to this issue. In the case of Randall's Island, it means the city has chosen to go with a lighter-colored infill material that does not absorb as much solar radiation.

But it's not just synthetic turf that can raise concerns. For example, across the river from Randall's Park was a soccer field that was closed for many years because it had become a dustbowl that was aggravating asthma conditions in the surrounding neighborhood. "Putting a synthetic field in there has provided a tremendous amount of recreational opportunities for people in that neighborhood. It's also solved the dust problem," Peterson said.

Ultimately the issue is complex. Maintaining a natural turf field requires you to burn more gasoline, use water to irrigate in a drought and most likely put down fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides.

"There's no perfect answer," Peterson said. "The right answer for each site means a mix. In the case of the Randall's Island fields, we've sited the fields, the uses and the materials in a pretty good way where we have synthetic fields that have a little bit of shade over them from the tree canopy used for soccer day in and day out all year long. We have other grass fields used for soccer, but not so constantly because we now have a stable of more fields and many are synthetic so when we do schedule the fields, we can in off-peak times give the fields a rest. We need all 20-some of our soccer fields in the fall after school, after work and during the day on the weekends, but during the school day we don't need all of them. We need half for gym classes, college football and fitness programs, but we can accommodate them on the synthetics, keeping the most intensive use there, and giving the grass a chance to recover and grow."