By Kathryn G. Menu
Toxic chemicals can be found everywhere — in the air, the water supply, in household items like flooring and flame retardant furniture, cleaning supplies, and even the food we eat. As a professional in the field of environmental health, Susan Lamontagne understands navigating children around exposure is both critical and challenging. It’s a task that she believes will become impossible if a turf field is installed on the only outdoor athletic field at Pierson Middle-High School.
And Ms. Lamontagne is not alone.
On Monday night, more than 30 community members and parents packed Pierson Middle-High School’s library, imploring the board to reconsider the installation of a crumb rubber artificial turf field at Pierson, a proposition voters narrowly agreed to fund, 585-507, along with a two-way track for $1.62 million in 2013. Crumb rubber turf, which has become an increasingly common choice for school district athletic fields, is often made with an infill of recycled tire particles that serve as a soil to support artificial turf grass.
“It was originally called ‘chem grass’,” said Ms. Lamontagne of artificial turf. “And that should say it all right there.”
“You cannot guarantee this is safe nor can we guarantee it will cause cancer, but what we can tell you is that this increases the toxic chemicals exposed to our children,” said Ms. Lamontagne.
“I have been concerned about its toxicity since I was first made aware of the proposal,” said Diane Hewett, who said she exchanged lengthy emails with former Superintendent Carl Bonuso and former facilities administrator Montgomery Granger about the issue prior to the 2013 vote. Ms. Hewitt, who has children in the district, said at the time she was assured of the turf’s safety.
“Research, however, continues to raise issues about the safety of this material,” she said on Monday night. Ms. Hewett noted that the federal government is taking the issue on. In February, the federal government announced it would launch a multi-agency study to look at the potential health risks associated with synthetic turf fields and playgrounds made of crumb rubber. The Centers for Disease Control Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Environmental Protection Agency are working collaboratively on the study.
It was that knowledge that prompted resident Jill Musnicki to raise the issue on Facebook. She and Ms. Hewett launched a petition that collected more than 630 signatures in less than two weeks.
“Many were alarmed about what they learned,” said Ms. Hewett. “As we talked to parents and community members, we found out that many did not realize synthetic turf was being installed at Pierson, and did not realize it was on the only field we have.”
Ms. Hewett said Greg Stanley, the superintendent of grounds at The Bridge golf club, has repeatedly offered to work on the natural grass field at Pierson pro bono.
Catherine Smith cited a 2015 Yale University study of crumb rubber turf, which found 96 chemicals in rubber tire infill used in synthetic turf and rubber tire mulch used as surfacing in toddler playgrounds. According to an assessment of the study by Environment and Human Health Inc., 20 percent of those chemicals are known carcinogens, and 40 percent were found to be irritants, causing respiratory, skin or eye irritation.
“Not surprisingly, the shredded tires contain a veritable witch’s brew of toxic substances,” said Dr. Gaboury Beniot, Yale professor of environmental chemistry and engineering, a lead investigator of the story. “It seems irresponsible to market a hazardous waste as a consumer product.”
Ms. Smith went on to cite a number of other studies raising concerns about the health safety of artificial turf fields.
Athletic turf fields are used in East Hampton and Southampton, as well as in Hampton Bays and Westhampton. Students from Sag Harbor participate in sports at both East Hampton and Southampton, including lacrosse and football, both of which are played on turf fields. Ms. Smith noted unlike these other schools, if Pierson installs a synthetic turf field it would be on the only outdoor field on the campus.
“This is our only field,” she said. “Our children will not have the opportunity to opt out of using these fields.”
Sag Harbor attorney Alex Kriegsman, a parent who is also representing a number of parents in the issue, noted that the board of education’s hands are not tied because the referendum vote was in favor of the turf installation.
“I would suggest to you that if you have an attorney you should have that in writing because I can guarantee you if that field goes in and someone gets sick you will all be sued,” he said.
Mr. Kriegsman noted the cost of artificial turf fields have risen as liability insurance for them have increased. He charged that was because there are more concerns about the safety of the fields. On Monday night, the board rejected two bids for the turf field — one from LandTek Group for $1.995 million and another from Laser Industries for $2.24 million. The board cannot spend more than the $1.62 million approved by voters on the project.
Kevin McAllister, the former Peconic BayKeeper and executive director of the Sag Harbor-based Defend H2O, said he reviewed a 2010 study produced by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection about turf fields. He said the study raised concerns about the potential of heavy metals like zinc exceeding what is called acute toxicity. As the Pierson campus is a part of the watershed that finds its way to the drainage ditch at Havens Beach, and eventually into the Peconic Estuary, Mr. McAllister said he was concerned the project could have a negative impact on water quality.
Even sixth grader Silas Hokanson said his essay on the dangers of synthetic turf gave him reasons to be concerned.
“I did some research and found out it contained toxic levels of lead and arsenic,” said the youngest member of the audience.
Ms. Lamontange asked the board to look at the research with a critical eye and understand the industry is behind certain studies supportive of turf fields.
“For generations, if you look back at the history of environmental health, there are all kinds of chemicals and products we are promised are safe … Industry has one priority and that is profit,” she said. “We have only one priority — and that is the health and safety of our children.”
On Tuesday, Sag Harbor School Board president Susan Kinsella said the issue would be taken up again by the district’s Educational Facilities Planning Committee when it meets on April 21. That committee originally weighed in on the proposal prior to the 2013 vote.
“I want to explore our options,” she said. “No one wants to poison our children.”
“I want to find out about Nike Grind, and whether there are grasses safer than others,” said Ms. Kinsella, referring to another synthetic turf on the market. “And if we can’t find a better option, then we have to find out how we can make our field a better field in its natural state, because we have to do something with it.”
Ms. Kinsella said the board would research the issue as well, and said no artificial turf would be approved for installation at the school without further public discussion.