The replacement of artificial turf at Newton South High School’s football and soccer fields during the last month has drawn sharp criticism from concerned parents and environmentalists alike.
The city of Newton approved the $3.5 million NSHS Artificial Turf Replacement Project on the school’s fields at the start of the year, and contractors got to work at the start of July. But environmentalists are worried about the leakage of “forever chemicals” from the artificial turf being replaced and the spillage of crumb rubber, which can pose health risks to the children who play on the turf and can contaminate the wetland in a nearby conservation area.
“They claim they need these fields to increase playability time for our kids, but the health and safety risks and the environmental disaster doesn’t seem to be part of the calculation,” said Ellie Goldberg, one of the organizers with the Better Action Now on Artificial Turf in Newton. “They call it a balance and we call it a bad trade-off.”
Goldberg and fellow organizer Melissa Brown emailed the Department of Environmental Protection on Monday, detailing the group’s concerns about how the turf was being removed and disposed of.
MassDEP press secretary Edmund Coletta wrote in a statement to the Globe that the department is aware of the situation and is “in contact with the Conservation agent, who has reported that she has inspected the sites involved and indicates that temporary erosion controls are in place and any breaches of those controls are being addressed.”
The conversation on artificial turf is happening across the country, with bills pending in California and New York to ban synthetic turf, according to Kyla Bennett, the Massachusetts-based director of science policy at advocacy nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. In Massachusetts, a hearing was held last week for Bill H.3948, which would prohibit “state and municipal contracts for the purchase and installation of artificial turf fields.”
Goldberg and Brown came together at the end of last year to advocate against the turf replacement projects in Newton out of concerns around health and environmental impacts. The pair called the removal of turf from the fields “inappropriate,” writing in their email to the state that the rolls of turf were laying exposed to a children’s playground with clear crumb rubber spillage.
“Piles of pellets were found in a landscape company’s dumpster and are scattered in the area surrounding the fields, on the asphalt surfaces, and near and in the storm drain that drains to the Charles River,” they wrote. “None of the workers observed were wearing any personal protective equipment.”
The contractor R.A.D. Sports did not respond for comment, but Jennifer Steel, the city’s chief environmental planner, said she’s been “very pleased” with how the contractors have contained the crumb rubber spillage behind the straw wattle marking the wetland’s 100-foot buffer zone.
“[The project] has unfolded as anticipated and without damage to the buffer zone,” Steel said after conducting a site visit on Tuesday.
But crumb rubber spillage is apparent in YouTube videos showing rolls of turf on site and by a dumpster. The videos were posted by Newton Ward 3 City Councilor Julia Malakie and shared by Better Action Now on Artificial Turf in Newton in its letter to the state.
R.A.D. Sports promised the city that the artificial turf will be sent to a Danish-owned facility in Pennsylvania that is capable of recycling artificial turf, according to Nicole Banks, the city’s commissioner of Parks, Recreation, and Culture. But Bennett, who has been advocating against the use of artificial turf across the country for years, said the facility still has not been opened. The Danish company Re-Match is currently facing allegations of environmental violations for dumping waste without state permitting and its improper storage of accumulating turf in fields and parking lots.
Artificial turf can leak toxic and carcinogenic chemicals such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), lead, and benzene. PFAS have been dubbed “forever chemicals” for their inability to degrade. Brita Lundberg, board chair at Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility, said that these chemicals can negatively impact health “at the very lowest level.”
“There is no safe level of these chemicals,” Lundberg said.
Artificial turf also makes for an impervious surface, according to Bennett, making it easier for chemicals to contaminate storm water that can run off into neighboring waters and wetlands.
“This is acres of plastic,” she said. “Knowingly putting down one of these fields in 2023 is mind-boggling to me.”
But artificial turf has long been an attractive option for municipalities due to its lower maintenance costs and resistance to wear and tear from sports play; the industry rule of thumb says one turf field can handle the equivalent use of three grass fields, according to Banks. Turf has a life span of around 10 years, she said, and the fields at NSHS are now over 13 years old because the pandemic put the replacement projects on hold. Another artificial turf project is proposed for Newton’s Albemarle Field.
The city held a couple of community meetings last fall to hear residents’ concerns, and switched from crumb rubber infill to thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) infill for the new turf to reduce PFAS leakage. TPE infill also sinks in water instead of floating like crumb rubber, which would make it less likely to be displaced during rain.
But concerns around environmental issues from the use of artificial turf remain. Because turf heats up much more than grass, it can act as a heat island during high temperatures, making it dangerous for athletes playing on it. Turf that heats up will then need to be watered to be brought back to a safe temperature, according to Bennett. Turf has also been associated with higher rates of no-contact injury among athletes, studies show.
“They’re created with fossil fuel, they emit greenhouse gases, they create heat islands, and then at the end of life, they’re burned, creating even more fossil fuels,” Bennett said. “There’s no point in the lifecycle of these artificial turf fields that is not an insult to our climate.”