Controversial crumb-rubber playfields set to open in Edmonds

EDMONDS — After more than a decade of planning, the completion of two synthetic turf athletic fields at the former Woodway High School are scheduled to open by the end of the month, replacing grass fields that became sodden and slippery from fall and spring rains.

The $4.2 million project includes a one-third of a mile walking track and playfields that can be used for soccer, baseball and lacrosse. “It’s been on the books since 2001,” said Carrie Hite, the city of Edmonds parks, recreation and cultural services director. “But it takes a while to put $4.2 million together to make this happen.”

The city of Edmonds and the Edmonds School District have each contributed $500,000, the state approved $750,000, and $2.5 million came from the Lynnwood-based Verdant Health Commission.

The project didn’t come without some opposition, which started in earnest last spring focusing on dangers believed to come from crumb rubber used in the fields’ construction. The fine-grained particles, made from ground-up tires, is used both in the padding under the green turf and as a kind of artificial dirt sprinkled on top of the fields.

“It’s a recycled product and unregulated,” said Laura Johnson, who lives about a mile from the school. Unlike crumb rubber, alternative materials are available that are nontoxic, she said.

Johnson and other opponents point to a list of hazardous chemicals in rubber tires, including heavy metals and substances linked to cancer.

Parents’ concerns were fanned in part by statements by a University of Washington soccer coach. Last year, the coach began asking if there was a possible link between artificial turf fields and some people who had played on them being diagnosed with various types of cancer.

The school district has staunchly defended its decision to use crumb rubber on the new fields. Superintendent Nick Brossoit said the district has taken significant steps to have the material reviewed for safety and has been assured that the use of the rubber crumb material is safe.

The district also hired a consultant to review any health concerns associated with the crumb-rubber fields, including studies by public agencies and research in scientific journals. “Studies that appear to exhibit rigorous scientific validity find no additional risk from the chemicals or physical properties of artificial turf and crumb rubber,” according to the report by EMB Consulting in Lynnwood. The school district has seven similar artificial-turf fields.

The Verdant Health Commission also hired a consultant to take a look at the issue, Michael K. Peterson, a toxicologist employed by Gradient, a Seattle consulting firm. The chemical levels found in artificial turf “do not present a risk to people playing on or using the fields,” Peterson’s report says.

Yet there have been concerns about possible health effects from the fill “related to data gaps or limitations,” it says.

Verdant is a foundation-like organization that awards grants for health promotion projects in south Snohomish County. In May, Fred Langer, board president, said the group would consider providing the school district an additional $60,000 to $70,000 to substitute organic materials such as coconut fiber and cork for the fields. But the organization received no request to do so from the school district.

Construction on the sports fields began soon after.

Johnson said her 9-year-old son won’t be among those playing sports on crumb-rubber fields. Other school districts are using alternative materials such as the ground-up material from Nike shoes or a material made from cork, coconut, and rice hulls, she said. “There are quite a few plant-based alternatives,” she said. “I feel my school district decided to listen to industry and very vocal parents who want more sports fields for their children instead of very vocal parents who wanted the safest fields for their children.”

Earlier this month, Ed Bowlden, who lives near the school, stopped by to inspect the fields’ progress as part of his daily walk with Rambo, his Yorkshire terrier. Bowlden said he’s seen kids playing on the school’s grass fields and called them “a sprained ankle waiting to happen.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind they made the right decision,” he said. “I imagine all the kids will love this.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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