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Health Center Today, October 16, 2009

First Phase of State's Artificial Turf Study Completed by Health Center Researchers

By Carolyn Pennington

Photo of Anne Bracker and Nancy Simcox

Research industrial hygienists Anne Bracker and Nancy Simcox with instrument used in artificial turf study.

Photo by Chris DeFrancesco

Health Center researchers have finished gathering samples for a state study examining the potential health and environmental risks of artificial turf. The researchers are part of a group of health and environmental experts trying to determine whether the ground-up rubber from recycled tires and other materials used in synthetic athletic fields poses any threat.

Nancy Simcox, a research industrial hygienist at the Occupational and Environmental Health Center, says some chemicals in rubber may vaporize to form a gas (volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) such as toluene and benzothiazole) while others, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), may remain attached to the surfaces of small solid particles.

"One unique aspect of this study is that we measured a range of exposures including benzothiazole, VOCs, and other chemicals in the breathing zone of athletes using artificial crumb rubber turf fields," says Simcox.

The team tested artificial turf fields at five different Connecticut schools.  They made sure the fields tested were not installed by the same company and that some were new fields (less than a year old) and others were over three years old. The testing included using specialized equipment placed at strategic points on the turf to collect stationary air samples.  They also outfitted team members with devices that allowed them to collect samples as they played soccer on the field. The team also tested a non-artificial turf area in the community and non-artificial turf areas away from the fields in order to get non-turf samples and determine what pollutants were already in the air.

The next phase of the study now moves to the laboratory where the samples are being analyzed. Lab tests are also being done on the crumb rubber itself to determine its chemical makeup and what substances may leach from it.  The Department of Environmental Protection is performing storm water sampling to detect the presence of any metals or compounds in water that runs off of fields containing crumb rubber.  The Department of Public Health will evaluate the data presented to them by the other agencies and publish a final health risk assessment by early next year.

Installation of artificial turf fields has become more common as cities and towns seek to reduce both maintenance needs created by the heavy use of grass fields and demands for water and pesticides needed for care of natural grass.  But lingering doubts remain about the health and environmental impact of the artificial turf fields.  “The goal of the study is to provide some valuable guidance to communities and school systems that operate or are considering installing artificial playing fields,” says Simcox.

The study is being funded with $245,000 available to the DEP for special projects from the settlement of cases involving violations of environmental regulations.