Mt. Lebanon expert says studies don’t prove turf safety

Published Jun 24, 2014 at 9:10 am (Updated Jun 24, 2014 at 9:10 am)

Mt. Lebanon residents remain locked in a bitter debate over the health impact of artificial turf. A majority of Mt. Lebanon commissioners and many athletic supporters would like to turf Middle and Wildcat Fields, while opponents say turf could harm child athletes and others by exposing them to toxic chemicals. Both sides claim research supports their view.

But in a presentation at the June 23 commission meeting, Dr. Philip Johnson, a public health specialist and Mt. Lebanon resident, said the existing body of research cannot be used to show artificial turf is safe.

“The key questions are what chemicals are in this product, what chemicals are used to maintain the product and what will happen as these chemicals break down,” he said. “We know children are vulnerable to toxic exposures early in life.”

Johnson explained that child physiology is fundamentally different from that of adults – for example, children tend to absorb larger quantities of toxic chemicals. Since their metabolic pathways are immature, they do not always have the enzymes needed to break down chemicals, either.

Johnson added that the health impacts of exposure can show up later in life. “Developmental impairments may not show up next month or next year,” he said. “This is about the entire life cycle. Exposures could have acute or chronic impacts down the road.”

According to Johnson, one of the main reasons Mt. Lebanon cannot rely on the existing body of research to prove artificial turf is safe for children is that the studies are not tailored to child physiology. In addition, all the turf fields studied are different. The fields are in different areas of the country with different weather patterns. They are made out of different materials and receive varying amounts of use. Methodologies also vary significantly across studies.

“When you read these studies, almost all of them say you cannot generalize,” Johnson said. “You’re looking for a scientific study to tell you if turf fields are safe. They can’t tell you that and I don’t think that approach is helpful.”

Johnson advised that companies bidding on the turf project release materials lists, which could be distributed publicly. He said experts could then assess the health risks associated with specific turf components.

Originally, Mt. Lebanon was to have received such a materials list from the low bidder only.

Commissioners were receptive to the idea, but did question some of Johnson’s statements.

Dave Brumfield asked if there were any signs or events that would clearly indicate it was safe to move forward – also where one should draw the line when it comes to chemical exposure.

“Most of us are drinking out of plastic water bottles,” Brumfield said. “I’ve read that the chemicals from the plastic can leech into the water. Should we not drink water out of plastic bottles?”

“The ubiquity of chemicals already has many experts deeply concerned,” Johnson replied. “Really the question becomes whether a turf field is worth the risks associated with introducing these chemicals to children.”

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