zzphoto.ru via shutterstock
Tile from crumb rubber, close up (zzphoto.ru via shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT — A bill that would prohibit the state and its municipalities from purchasing and using artificial turf on playing fields was the subject of a public hearing Friday before the Environment Committee.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors is Rep. Josh Elliott, a Democrat from Hamden, where there have been series of ongoing debates in recent years over how to renovate their playing fields, including in 2016 when officials reversed a previous decision to install a crumb rubber baseball field and instead used a mix of cork and coconut, along with a “shock pad” said to reduce the risk of concussions.

Testifying in support of the bill was Louis Burch, program director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

“We would prefer to advocate for natural grass versus turf fields,” Burch told the committee.

CLICK TO VOTE FOR 2019 HB 5249: An Act Prohibiting The Purchase Or Use Of Artificial Turf By The State And Municipalities

” alt=”” />

Asked by the committee if he thought the bill should be retroactive to replace previously installed artificial turf fields, Burch said he wasn’t sure that was realistic.

“It is more important to stop investing in new, artificial turfs going forward,” Burch said.

jack kramer / ctnewsjunkie
Louis Burch, program director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, speaks to legislators Friday (jack kramer / ctnewsjunkie)

Committee member Tom O’Dea, R-New Canaan, said he had spent “thousands of hours on artificial turf fields” watching his kids play and as a coach. In an exchange with Burch, O’Dea said there should be a distinction made between different types of synthetic turf fields — i.e. crumb rubber versus cork and coconut.

O’Dea said the synthetic fields in his district, which includes New Canaan and Wilton, are primarily cork and coconut. He said studies have indicated that those materials are considered safer than earlier synthetic field materials.

O’Dea added that another consideration that cannot be ignored is the additional cost of maintaining grass athletic fields for a municipality — i.e. grass cutting and pesticide spraying versus the low-cost maintenance of artificial turf.

The bill has plenty of support.

Laura Cahn, chairwoman, of the New Haven Environmental Advisory Council, submitted testimony in favor, stating: “We should not be removing soil and replacing it with synthetics. The soil is the earth’s filtering system for toxins. Removing large swaths of soil deprives our planet of its ability to absorb, dilute, and eliminate poisons.

“An artificial turf field is composed of at least three layers of synthetics, often four: a plastic “fabric” mat, a layer of perforated polypropylene (Styrofoam), EPDM synthetic “rubber” (instead of crumb rubber from recycled tires, which has proven problematic), and a carpet of plastic grass,” Cahn said. “Even if these materials last as long as their warranties claim, eventually they break into smaller and smaller pieces and end up in our water and sometimes our bodies.”

Crumb rubber fields, in particular, where targeted by many as the type of field construction that the state should be moving away from. Many towns, such as Hamden, have already taken that step.

Anne Hulick, state director of Clean Water Action and coordinator of the Coalition for a Safe and Healthy Connecticut, made that very argument.

“Tire rubber mulch made from recycled ground up tires contains numerous toxic chemicals including styrene and butadiene. Styrene is neurotoxic and a probable human carcinogen,” said Hulick.

“Tires may also contain lead and cadmium, both of which are neurotoxic, as well as numerous other chemicals either from the manufacturing process or obtained from traveling on roads and highways where numerous other polyaromatic hydrocarbons and other harmful chemicals are found,” Hulick added.

Committee members said if the bill does move forward work would needed be done to be more specific as to what type of synthetic fields, if not all of them, would be banned under the legislation.

Any legislation imposing a ban would be strongly opposed by the Connecticut Association of Athletic Directors (CADD), which represents the athletic directors in 188 high schools and 150 middle school athletic programs across the state.

Fred Balsamo, CADD’s executive director, said: “The many activities supported by a comprehensive school program could never be facilitated on a single grass field.

Synthetic turf fields decrease the number of injuries as compared to an improperly maintained grass field,” Balsamo went on. “Overused grass fields are notorious for having a compaction problem.”

Balsamo also addressed the cost issue that O’Dea had raised.

Schools do not have the luxury nor funding to shut down fields for a period of time to aerate and overseed. Continual use on grass fields causes ruts and wear patterns making it impossible to keep grass healthy,” Balsamo said.

He added: “A majority of schools already have existing synthetic turf fields and to render them unusable would require expensive alternatives. To rip out an existing field and bring in topsoil and seed would take a full year or more to create a healthy useable field.”

Balsamo said: “There is documentation proving that all the expenses in maintaining a grass field properly: fertilization; aeration; top dressing soil; over seeding; mowing; paint for lining; and the labor associated with every aspect is nearly $100,000 per year.”