Activists, commissioners square off over Mt. Lebanon’s ‘toxic’ turf

Published May 13, 2014 at 10:56 am (Updated May 13, 2014 at 10:56 am)

Depending on who in Mt. Lebanon you ask, artificial turf is either a panacea for municipal field space issues, a crown jewel project that will add to home values – or the most serious health and environmental threat to hit the community since asbestos and lead-based paint.

Activists in Mt. Lebanon say turf threatens the health of children and asthmatics, and that it will pollute local streams. The majority of Mt. Lebanon’s commissioners and sports groups insist turf is safe. After all, residents young and old have been playing on it since the 1970s.

Various artificial turf components, from infill to backing to individual blades of synthetic grass, are manufactured from recycled tires. Tires contain a number of hazardous materials, including lead, acetone, zinc and mercury (the EPA lists 30 such chemicals on its web page devoted to crumb rubber, though it notes that not all are present in all tires). Despite an expanding body of research, however, there is no general consensus as to what, if any, long-term health effects these materials will have on athletes and others exposed to the material.

Turf opponents such as Kimberly Scevtchuk insist researchers are a long way from proving turf safe for kids.

“When I look at the independent research, I don’t see reports that are contradictory,” Scevtchuk said. “I see each one filling in a different piece of the puzzle.” She explained that studies have often looked at turf of different ages, and that study sample sizes are usually small, making it impossible to generalize from their results.

A 2008 US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, for example, applied the full study protocol to only three sites. It reached no conclusions regarding the potential health impact of the crumb rubber material. The EPA recommends children wash their hands after playing on surfaces made of crumb rubber, as well as before eating (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the issue be studied further).

Also, Scevtchuk said, the health risks associated with artificial turf change as the turf ages. Rubber breaks down into dust and other particulate matter that can be ingested more easily. Additionally, most studies have examined turf’s impact on adult health. Children may not show the effects of chemical exposure until much later in their development.

Mt. Lebanon commissioner John Bendel said he and fellow commissioners studied research from a number of sources prior to allocating funds for the turf project, including The American Journal of Sports Medicine, The British Journal of Sports Medicine, the EPA and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.

“Mt. Lebanon is also able to draw upon approximately 40 years of direct experience,” Bendel said. “Turf was first installed in Mt. Lebanon in the 1970s. Our high school facility is currently used for youth soccer, lacrosse and football. Residents of all ages participate in events and activities on our high school turf, including Relay for Life. Rarely is this facility not being utilized by residents of all ages and physical abilities.”

Local opposition to turf does not begin and end with health issues – residents are concerned about the potential environmental impact as well.

Dr. Tracy Bank, a geologist, said that artificial turf can never match the environmental benefits of natural grass. “(Turf manufacturers) are basically strip mining the ground,” she explained, adding that should soil need rehabilitated in the future, it will be an expensive and time-consuming process.

According to Bank, removal of the natural soil could exacerbate flooding along Cedar Boulevard – flooding that will wash the chemicals from tire crumb rubber into local streams.

“When artificial turf was invented, it wasn’t to replace grass,” she said. “It was meant to go where grass can’t grow naturally.”

The majority of Mt. Lebanon commissioners dispute that either flooding or contaminated storm water will result from the project. Commissioner Bendel cited plans for a sump-like stone and piping system capable of holding approximately 140,000 gallons of water and controlling the peak rate of flow from a 25-year storm event.

“Regarding metals and their effect on storm water, the bid specifications will include an option for the use of organic infill, which contains no metals,“ Bendel said. He added that project bid specifications will require lab tests of each turf component, including the turf backing, to ensure they meet American Society for Testing and Metals (ASTM) standards as well as U.S. Health and Safety codes.

Some turf opponents, like resident Jeff Heiskell, say the project proceeded without the municipality communicating this critical information to neighborhoods bordering the fields.

“Should I really have to scour commission meeting minutes and attend every single commission meeting to learn about a project that could have a massive impact on my quality of life?” he asked.

Commissioners insist turf has been discussed in various forms for the last six years. Information related to project specifications is posted on the municipal website. The project has also been discussed repeatedly at public meetings since the its proposal in November 2013.

That hasn’t stopped residents from crying foul on governance. Those interviewed for this piece believe turf supporters are hurrying to “get the turf down,” at which point it would essentially be impossible for the municipality to reverse course due to the high cost of turf removal and soil remediation.

Neither Mt. Lebanon’s Environmental Sustainability Board (ESB) nor its Parks Advisory Board were asked for input prior to the commission allocating funds for the project. The ESB even accused commission president Kristen Linfante of misrepresenting its position on artificial turf at a February meeting. More recently, on May 6, the Parks Advisory Board produced a statement highlighting health and environmental concerns related to the project.

Both the ESB and Parks Advisory Board statements are available in their entirety on resident Elaine Gillen’s blog, Lebo Citizens.

But, it’s not just a handful of residents questioning the process.

Kelly Fraasch, the lone commissioner opposed to the turf project, criticized what she characterized as a rushed proposal. “A proposal was presented at the beginning of November 2013 with an expected vote two weeks later to redirect all unassigned funds available to the turf project,” she said. “This, after years of any large field project being left out of the manager’s recommended budget and capital improvement program.” Fraasch and former commission president Matt Kluck both voted no to the project.

Fraasch said rushed planning led to the commission and municipal staff adopting a reactive stance in terms of design, budget, health and environmental issues.

“Artificial turf is an issue that is evolving, with potential health concerns for children, pregnant mothers and adults. We can’t look back at years of use and say it’s safe because everyone is using it. There are numerous examples of items we thought were safe and clearly aren’t today.”

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