June 24, 2008
Fake Turf, Real Apprehension
By MIKE KELLY
CDC instructions advise all who set a toe on one of these fields to remove all clothing as soon as possible.
Mike Kelly is a Record columnist. Contact him at [email protected]
WE LIVE in wondrous times. We no longer need real grass for football, soccer, baseball and lacrosse. We have artificial turf, made from plastic, nylon and ground-up car and truck tires.
But now we worry.
Recent tests on fake turf fields at four high schools in northern New Jersey revealed high levels of lead. And now comes a truly wondrous message from the federal government - actually a special advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC advisory, which was released late last week, is actually a set of instructions for anyone who uses an artificial turf field. Pay attention to the vocabulary here. In this bizarre debate, vocabulary is perhaps the only thing worth laughing about.
At the top of the list of CDC instructions is this: Anyone who steps onto a fake field should wash "aggressively" afterwards.
Yes, you read that right: Wash aggressively. No more quick showers to save water. If you play, you get sprayed, the advisory says.
It doesn't matter if you have spent three hours kicking a soccer ball or five minutes throwing a coach's temper tantrum. If you step on that plastic turf, you need to wash your mouth - and everything else - with some serious soap and water for at least 20 seconds on all exposed body parts.
But that's not all.
Remove your clothing
The instructions ask all athletes - and anyone else who sets a toe on one of these fields - to remove all clothing as soon as possible.
Naked soccer? Lacrosse au naturel? Baseball in the buff?
The possibilities are endless.
But the instructions don't end there. The CDC recommends that all sports uniforms worn on fake fields should be turned inside out to avoid spreading "dust.",
Apparently, the uniforms tend to get coated with ground-up bits of tires and other "artificial" items that are dangerous to your health and wardrobe.
But again, that's not all.
The final instruction is this: All clothing worn on an artificial field should be washed separately from other items. Besides the "delicate" cycle on washing machines, maybe now we need the "fake turf" cycle.
In other words, the CDC wasn't kidding when it advised athletes and others to wash aggressively.
They're not laughing, either.
Indeed, this is no laughing matter. But the story of the growth of artificial athletic fields is full of irony.
From town recreation fields in Franklin Lakes, Wayne and Fort Lee to more than two dozen public and private high schools across northern New Jersey, artificial turf fields are a growing trend. But here's the irony: Many of these fields - especially those built for municipal parks - were funded by state Green Acres grants.
That's right, money, set aside by state law, to preserve New Jersey's natural environment was used to buy a fake environment.
Buy first, test later
But perhaps the most outrageous piece of irony is this: Scientists knew that artificial turf fields might cause health and environmental problems. But in the rush for improved athletic and recreational facilities - and use of those Green Acres dollars far too many bureaucrats opted to install the fake fields first, then test for hazards later.
So last week, we learned that the lead content of the fake turf at Ramapo High School in Franklin Lakes was six times the state standard and the lead content of the Indian Hills High School field in Oakland was seven times higher. The fields will be closed during summer, school authorities said.
"We're not going to be using either of our fields until we complete further testing," said Paul Saxton, the superintendent for the Ramapo Indian Hills school district.
But testing is one thing. What if those additional tests confirm high lead levels? What then? Remove the fake turf and start over? And who pays for this?
Fake fields, by the way, don't come cheap. A basic soccer and football field goes for around $2 million.
The news of high lead levels at the Ramapo and Indian Hills high schools comes on the heels of similar revelations at the Northern Valley Regional High School District's artificial fields in Old Tappan and in Demarest. Initially, the district considered canceling graduation ceremonies, scheduled for the fields.
But other tests revealed "acceptable" lead levels. How comforting.
Meanwhile, a group called the Synthetic Turf Council issued a statement in praise of the new tests.
"Our industry is proud of its unblemished record of human health and environmental safety," the council said.
Really now. The same statement underscored the inherent paradox of these fake turf fields. "Lead chromate has been used in a number of synthetic turf fields," the council acknowledged.
But then the council said we should not be worried. "Lead chromate's extremely low bioavailability prevents it from being readily absorbed by the human body," the statement said.
But if lead chromate is so safe, why does the New Jersey Department of Health suggest that children under age 7 be prohibited from playing on fields with high lead levels?
That sort of question never seems to be answered. The state continues to find high levels of lead in artificial turf, but the fake turf manufacturers and their lobbyists claim we shouldn't worry.
Comforting, isn't it?
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