Amid local and national concerns over the safety of synthetic turf fields, Falls Church City Public Schools and the City of Falls Church Recreation and Parks Department finished replacing the synthetic turf field at George Mason High School in December 2015.
Turf field has also been recently installed at nearby Westgate Elementary School, located in Pimmit Hills, despite the protestations of parents of children at the school and the school’s parent-teacher association.
The parents who opposed the installation of the turf field at Westgate cite a July 2015 study by the Yale University School of Engineering and Applied Science that says that a material used in the turf fields, crumb rubber, contains chemicals that are considered “probable carcinogens” and irritants that cause “problems for either breathing, the skin or the eyes.”
The prevailing theory is that when people play on synthetic turf that they come into contact with crumb rubber, which puts them at risk for developing rare cancers.
“I think it’s putting children in danger,” said Glenn Heller, whose child attends Westgate. Heller said that he will not allow his child to play on the school’s turf.
In the course of his research about the dangers of crumb rubber, Heller saw an ESPN “30 for 30” documentary about the use of crumb rubber in artificial fields and reached out to the Westgate Parent-Teacher Association with his research and concerns.
In an article on ESPN’s website that accompanies that piece, soccer player Julie Foudy writes about soccer coach Amy Griffin’s record of athletes who have cancer who have played on synthetic turf fields. Foudy wrote that Griffin’s list now stands at “200 athletes, 158 of whom are soccer players,” 101 of whom are goalkeepers.
Eventually, the Westgate Parent-Teacher Association voted unanimously to ask the school district to suspend construction of the field in order for the school community better understand the possible health risks associated with crumb rubber.
In October 2015, Fairfax County Public Schools released a statement on synthetic turf fields. In it the school system said that converting natural grass fields to synthetic fields has provided a solution to the increased demand for use of outdoor fields in Fairfax County.
“Fairfax County Public Schools relies on the experts at the Fairfax County Health Department and other state and federal agencies in determining if any health risks are associated with the use of crumb rubber fields,” the statement said.
“The current available information has concluded that the use of synthetic turf in athletic fields remains safe with no findings showing a link between crumb rubber and any health risks. However, we understand the concerns of parents and community members, and the need for clear answers on this important issue.”
Danny Schlitt, the City of Falls Church’s Director of Recreation and Parks, said much the same in regard to the information available on crumb rubber and possible associated health risks. He said that the new field at Mason uses a mix of crumb rubber and sand to fill in between the blades of synthetic grass.
“We haven’t heard any direct concerns. People have certainly discussed it….What we’ve done is relied on the industry and relied on the things they’ve been doing and there’s certainly a lot of conversation in regards to this product,” Schlitt said. “But still, to this day, there’s been no proof, the EPA hasn’t made any decisions based on it, the Center for Disease Control hasn’t made any statement tying to this to anything.
“Now there is a lot of concern about it. There have been people who have been doing a lot of investigating….And we’re keeping an eye on the issue.”
Schlitt, who has a daughter who plays on the girls lacrosse team at Mason, said that “at this point there’s nothing out there that has put us in a concerned position.”
In a separate, but related issue, some in the Falls Church community expressed concerns over the school system spending money on a new turf field and track, which is only being resurfaced, when there are plans to redevelop the entire campus that houses Mason and Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School.
Some in the community are concerned that it is a waste of money to replace the turf and track when they could be upended through the campus redevelopment project.
Schlitt, as a taxpayer in the City, expressed the same concerns, but said that the turf, which was over nine years old, was past due for a replacement.
“The lifetime of the old turf was gone. We got through this football season by the skin of our teeth,” Schlitt said.
“There’s a testing that has to be conducted on that type of field…and basically it tests the hardness of the field and the safety of the field. And we were starting to lose that battle. It had to be redone.”
The Recreation and Parks Department, Schlitt said, went to the Falls Church City Council for funding to replace the turf at Mason prior to the redevelopment project becoming imminent.
“We knew the first shovel wasn’t going to go into the ground for at least the next year and a half and we couldn’t put every single outdoor sport in jeopardy up at the school,” Schlitt said. “There was no way we could have figured out how to take care of all of the spring sports, recreation activities and all of the other community use of that field for an 18 – 20 month period.
“We don’t know where to new school is going to go, ultimately, so I guess that’s a fear in the back of people’s minds, including mine,” Schlitt said.
“I don’t want to see that kind of money go into a project and then for it to be ripped out, but it was a matter of timing and we just didn’t have the time to sit and wait for the [redevelopment project]…when we had all these activities that needed to be played.”