Paul Kozakiewicz: New Problems with Fake Turf

The road to Hell is often paved with good intentions.

The City has recently gone into the carpet laying business, replacing large swaths of grass with ground up tires. In 2005, the City Fields Foundation was formed to raise money for the replacement of athletic fields at playgrounds throughout the City. The idea is to make the fields more accessible during the rainy season and at night, with the program's installation of lights, including a proposal to put them at Rossi Playground.

Proponents of the artificial fields say they will save thousands of gallons of water and remove the need to cut grass, which will save the City money in the long haul. The new artificial turf is better than it used to be, they say, because it mimics natural grass in a more realistic way.

But someone has lost sight of the forest. It doesn't even make sense to me that a forward-thinking, environmental city like San Francisco would consider this proposal, much less move forward without even doing an environmental assessment of the potential dangers. Especially with our children playing on the outdoors mat.

The foundation, working in concert with the City, has already replaced the grass fields at Garfield Square and Silver Terrace. It is moving fast to replace other fields, including Rossi and South Sunset Playground.

At Silver Terrace, real grass is already growing through the artificial turf.

In March, the SF Recreation and Park Commission approved the formation of a Synthetic Fields Task Force to "discuss, clarify and make recommendations on the environmental, health and social impacts of synthetic fields."

The task force, with its appointed experts on climate change, public health impacts, water quality and turf toxicity, is a good start. The horse has already left the barn but at least the City is sending a posse out to look for it.

Contributing to Global Warming
Why would we contribute to global warming by removing life that removes carbon dioxide from our atmosphere?

According the non-profit group Athena Institute, the replacement of one grass field would require the planting of 1,861 trees, and allowing them to grow for 10 years, to offset the amount of "carbon dioxide sequestration" lost with the grass fields.

David Brown, a public health toxicologist, wrote a column for the Sunday New York Times explaining some of the dangers of creating playing fields out of petroleum products.

He said each square foot of synthetic surface has 10 or so pounds of tire crumbs, which results in about 225 tons of ground-up tires for a field 300 feet long by 150 feet wide. Silver Terrace is at least twice that size.

"(Studies) found that dust from the rubber crumbs contained carcinogens that could be inhaled into the deepest portions of the lung," Brown wrote.

As well, the water that drains off the synthetic fields is channeled into the city's sewer system, which means it is treated and discharged into the Pacific Ocean. It does not go back into the underground aquifer. (Wasn't that the problem with Lake Merced?)

Our sewer system can't handle all of the water during a heavy rain and sometimes untreated effluent is dumped directly into the ocean. This will make that problem worse.

The SF Board of Supervisors passed legislation in 2002 to ban the paving over of small green spaces in the front of people's homes in an effort to keep water flowing into the underground aquifers and out of the city's storm drainage system. Recently, it passed legislation calling for fines of up to $500 for violators.

But the City is the biggest violator of its own policy. Surprise.

Injuries a Concern
Sports injuries are reportedly more frequent on synthetic turf. One common injury, rug burn, often causes a bacterial infection, including drug-resistant staph infections.

According to a report in Scientific American Magazine, players burned on artificial turf are 10 times more likely to get antibiotic treatments for their wounds than on grass.

A study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 reported that five members of the St. Louis Rams football team got drug-resistant staph infections from playing on artificial turf in their home stadium.

At Silver Terrace, its two baseball diamonds are completely covered with synthetic turf, including the infield where players slide. The turf is also responsible for knee, ankle and foot sprains and tears that occur when an athlete's foot is planted and doesn't give as the player continues to move. This type of injury is common in soccer matches because of the way athletes have to move, with constant stops and twists.

Players wear short rubber-spiked shoes to play on the field.

David Beckham, an international soccer star, had this to say about artificial turf: "As a professional athlete, you can't play a game like soccer on that sort of field. What it does to our body as a soccer player, you're in bits for three days after that."

A poll of more than 1,500 players in the National Football League in 2006 showed 65 percent felt artificial turf was more likely than grass to cause an injury and 74 percent said the surface caused more soreness and fatigue.

Limitations of Synthetic Turf
The synthetic turf being installed in San Francisco is made up of plastic and finely ground pellets derived from rubber tires. The turf needs to be watered, sometimes with chemical disinfectants, to wash away spit, vomit, blood and bird and animal excretions. It also needs to be cooled under certain conditions to prevent a potential fire hazard. (Could an arsonist start a "tire fire" on the field? Is the fire department ready to respond?)

A conventional sprinkler system will not work because it would require tears in the turf, which would void the turf's eight-year warranty. Special high-velocity water nozzles have to be installed at the edge of the field.

The turf also requires a special $60,000 sweeper to agitate the petroleum-based rubber pellets once a month.

Some of the changes in city policy and potential affects of synthetic fields are:
• Pets, food and drink are prohibited;
• Any vehicle with wheels is prohibited, including strollers;
• Birds will lose feeding habitat because worms, grubs and other delectables will no longer be available;
• Algae can become a problem. Usually confined to marine habitats, the algae can grow in artificial turf. One chemical used to clean the surface is Benzalkonium Chloride, which is a hazard to fish;
• The tons of old tire pellets will have to be trucked to a landfill when the fields have to be replaced, pellets that are not biodegradable.
Rose Marie Denis, the director of communications for the SF Recreation and Park Department, and Steven Castille, director of the city's turf program, did not return numerous telephone calls seeking specifics about San Francisco's synthetic turf program.

Problems Around the Globe
There have been lots of problems where synthetic turf has been installed.

Because of health concerns, the governments of Norway and Sweden have recommended that there be no more installations of artificial turf with tire pellets. They are concerned about the toxicity of the pellets and the possibility of a negative reaction from people that are allergic to latex, a component of rubber tires.

Community groups have formed in several New Jersey towns calling for the end of synthetic fields. New Jersey has more than 150 synthetic fields, out of the 850 that were installed in the United States in 2007.

In California, legislation was introduced Feb. 19 by Sen. Abel Maldonado (SB 1277) that would prohibit the installation of synthetic turf at any public or private school or park until the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has prepared an environmental study. The California Department of Public Health would be required to perform a health study on the use of "crumb rubber" before June 30, 2009.

In the City, the Sierra Club has called for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for synthetic fields, citing concerns over restrictions of public access, impacts on trees, animals, insects and vegetation, and the installation of lights, which puts migratory birds at risk.

Intentions are Good
The City Fields Foundation and SF Mayor Gavin Newsom are splitting the cost of the city's field renovations. They argue that synthetic carpets save the taxpayers money, but that claim is dubious. When you add in the initial cost of ripping out the grass and topsoil fields and replacing them with crushed stone and a massive rubber and plastic carpet, and the cost of maintaining, repairing the synthetic turf, there is no savings.

The City Field Foundation says it can save up to 75 percent of its maintenance costs. But, the city of Costa Mesa, which installed the turf, realized little savings when all of the extra considerations for synthetic turf were taken into account.

Proposition A, passed by city voters in March, is providing $8.5 million for the synthetic fields program, even though there was no mention of synthetic fields in the text of the proposition. There is no doubt that the intentions of those supporting the City Fields Foundation are good. That includes the family of GAP founder Don Fisher, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and many more San Franciscans, which have contributed more than $4 million for the program so far.

According to the foundation, the City is currently short 27 baseball fields and 33 soccer fields.

Helping children and families is an admirable goal that needs to be pursued. But use those millions to hire more gardeners so our kids have great grass fields to play on and to build more playing fields within our vast array of parks and playgrounds.

Both sides of the issue are getting ready to butt heads and argue over the details. But it's a plain as the back of your hand - replace grass fields in a City blessed with weather for growing grass year round with ground up rubber tires and plastic made from oil - it's just not right.

San Francisco adopted the Precautionary Principle in 2003. It says: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." This sounds like one of those cases to me.

Paul Kozakiewicz is the editor of the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers.