City Debates Replacing Aging Turf Fields, Hears Testimony on Health and Environmental Harms

Aging artificial turf soccer field at Lione Park in Stamford.

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Scientists with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have reported that the summer of 2022 was among the hottest recorded on Earth.

It’s part of a pattern – the Earth’s 10 hottest summers all occurred in the last dozen years.

In July and August of this year – days when air temperatures hit the high 80s and sometimes mid-90s – members of the Stamford Parks and Recreation Commission went out to measure what they suspected might be the most blistering surfaces in the city.

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Playgrounds and artificial turf fields.

They were right.

On Aug. 5, when the noontime air temperature was 89 degrees, the playground surface at Lione Park was a whopping 155 degrees, said Melanie Hollas, vice chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission. 

The temperature of the artificial turf field was nearly as high, 144 degrees, Hollas said.

Both were hotter than the asphalt in Lione Park, which measured 127 degrees.

For context, human skin experiences pain at 111 degrees, a first-degree burn at 118 degrees, and a second-degree burn at 131 degrees, according to the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Hollas and fellow commissioner Jessica Katz took temperatures at city parks as officials begin to weigh the capital costs of replacing four aging artificial turf fields at two of Stamford’s busiest parks – Lione on Stillwater Avenue and West Beach on Shippan Avenue.

Hollas and Katz had help from Fern Galperin, communications director for Pollinator Pathway, a group that is working to create a pesticide-free corridor of habitats for birds, bees, butterflies and other pollinators in public and private spaces throughout Stamford and into surrounding towns. 

Parks need natural surfaces, Hollas said. To make the point, the women measured the temperature of the grass at Lione Park on that August day. 

It was 88, one degree lower than the air temperature, Hollas said.

The super-heated artificial surfaces pose a more insidious danger than skin burns, according to Hollas. They contain dangerous chemicals that can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed by the skin, and leach into the soil and water table, she said.

“The material breaks down in the heat and (ultraviolet) rays from the sun,” Hollas said. “And summers are only getting hotter.”

She and Katz called for a special meeting of the Parks and Recreation Commission earlier this month, inviting environmental and public health experts to explain the latest research on artificial turf and rubberized playground surfaces.

“We are trying to raise awareness,” Hollas said after the meeting. “The Parks and Recreation Commission is in charge of only about half the fields in Stamford. The Board of Education is in charge of the rest, so we are inviting school board members and parent-teacher associations to join the discussion.”

Dr. Kyla Bennett, director of science policy at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility – a group that supports public employees who report improper actions within their agencies and work to improve regulations that protect the environment and human health – took part in the virtual meeting.

The rubber crumbs used to fill in between the plastic blades of grass in artificial turf contain dangerous chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, and volatile organic compounds, Bennett said.

Beyond the crumb rubber, which is also used in playground surfaces, artificial turf contains polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, a class of thousands of chemicals known as “the forever chemicals” because they don’t break down, Bennett said. Water around artificial turf fields is easily contaminated with PFAS, Bennett said.

In June the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory saying there is virtually no safe level of PFAS in drinking water, Bennett said.

Manufacturers of synthetic turf maintain that the materials used in their products have been reviewed by federal and state government agencies and have been found to be non-hazardous.

But Dr. Sarah Evans, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said scientists and researchers are awaiting the results of an extensive EPA study that will assess the health risks posed by artificial turf.

Studies show that children playing on artificial surfaces have been sickened by heat exposure and suffered burns, but the EPA research will provide the first comprehensive risk assessment, Evans said.

Health problems caused by chemical exposures are difficult to assess because they “develop over many years of life,” Evans said. But synthetic turf contains “known carcinogens and heavy metals … which is enough to know we need to make a better choice.”

Bennett pointed out that, last month, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ordered that no new artificial turf be installed in city parks. Three other Massachusetts towns have done the same, Bennett said, but a statewide ban failed.

Connecticut has made similar attempts, Evans said.

“Connectdicut tried for a number of years to pass legislation to restrict use of tire crumbs in artificial turf, but a statewide initiative did not pass. Industry pushback in Hartford was very strong,” Evans said. “Most of the legislation has been at the city level. Westport passed an ordinance to restrict the type of infill” used in synthetic turf. 

Stamford Parks and Facilities Manager Kevin Murray had questions about the logistics of maintaining natural grass in a city that has 40 acres of heavily used athletic fields.

“We are pesticide-free, and we’re in year one of our organic turf program,” Murray said. “If we convert these artificial fields (at Lione Park and West Beach) back to natural grass, what kind of manpower would we need?”

Cindy Grafstein, a special assistant to the mayor overseeing school buildings, said the biggest issue is that the fields – city and Board of Education – are constantly in use.

“Grass is better, that’s clear. It’s a question of funding and the maintenance and engineering of the fields,” Grafstein said. “The difficulties in a city like ours is to control use on public fields in dense communities, which is probably why the city went to artificial turf to begin with.”

It’s time to take another look, Hollas said. An artificial turf field contains the equivalent of 40,000 pounds of plastic, or 46 million plastic straws, or 2 million plastic bags, Hollas said.

“Stamford and other municipalities have banned plastic bags and straws,” Hollas said. “If we’re banning straws and bags, why are we putting down this material on playing fields?”


Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.

a.carella@ctexaminer.com