“Crumb rubber” proposed for use in sports fields raises worries

EDMONDS — A nonprofit that contributed $2.5 million to build new sports fields at the former Woodway High School plans to explore possible health issues related to material used in the artificial turf.

The Verdant Health Commission is the largest funding source in the first phase of what is envisioned as a $12 million project. Eventually, it will include a walking track, resurfaced tennis and basketball courts and four year-round turf fields that can be used for soccer and baseball. It could take three to five years to fully complete the project.

The Edmonds School Board is scheduled to make a decision on the project at a meeting Tuesday. Construction is expected to get under way by the end of May or early June, according to the school district.

The president of Verdant’s board, Fred Langer, sent an email to the Edmonds School District this week, saying that the five-member board would like to explore possible health effects from the so-called “crumb rubber” material used in the artificial turf “out of an abundance of caution.”

In an interview, Langer, an attorney, said some people here and around the country suggest that the rubber material, made from recycled tires, could expose children to volatile organic hydrocarbon vapor.

Hydrocarbon vapor is emitted by a variety of products, including copiers and printers, glues, adhesives, paints and cleaning supplies, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In high enough concentrations, the vapor can cause symptoms such as headaches and dizziness and can cause cancer in humans.

A number of studies have looked at artificial fields as potentially hazardous, including one by the EPA.

The tiny rubber particles embedded in synthetic turf can be inhaled or swallowed and might affect the lead levels in children, Langer said. However, “I don’t know that it’s significant.”

The Verdant board plans to review the issue at its May 27 meeting. The board could consider granting an additional $60,000 to $70,000 to substitute organic materials such as coconut fiber and cork, Langer said.

The crumb rubber that the school district has proposed using on the fields is the same used at Husky Stadium and CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Langer said.

Verdant wanted to help fund the sports fields because the organization is concerned with sedentary lifestyles, particularly among children, he said.

The Edmonds School District conducted its own review of the topic. It included a January letter from the Connecticut Department of Public Health, which has studied the matter itself. The Connecticut agency said it didn’t find large amounts of vapor or particles released from the fields, or an elevated cancer risk.

Nick Brossoit, superintendent of the Edmonds School District, responded to Langer in an email. He said the school board “takes seriously the health and safety of all students.” The board reviewed the issue of turf safety during a study session April 21. A report for the school board by an industrial hygienist said that research by academic, federal and state governments “has unequivocally failed to find any link between synthetic turf and cancer.”

Among other findings, the report cited a 2009 study by New York state Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Health, which found that the levels of chemicals in the air at synthetic turf fields “do not raise a significant health concern.”

Verdant is an outgrowth of the former Stevens Hospital in Edmonds. In 2010, Swedish Health Services signed an agreement to lease the building, administer the hospital and make annual lease payments to the hospital district. In turn, the five-member former hospital board formed a nonprofit using money from the lease payments to pay for programs to promote health and wellness in south Snohomish County.

Langer served on the hospital board and now is chairman of Verdant’s board. “This is the biggest hot-button issue there’s been in the 17 years I’ve been on the board,” he said of the turf questions.

Langer said his own son has played soccer on crumb-rubber fields for years. “If it turns out these things are not OK, I want to be part of changing it,” he said. “But I don’t want to presuppose what we’ll do.”

The first part of the athletic fields project, installation of two turf fields, is being paid for by $500,000 contributions each from the city of Edmonds and the school district, $750,000 in state money and $2.5 million from Verdant.

Some neighbors have objected to the project, launching a Web page to publicize their concerns, which include diminishing open space in a city with little remaining.

“It’s really a unique, beautiful place,” Kate Smith said of the grassy fields surrounding the school. Classes often use the forest and fields surrounding what is now Edmonds Heights, an alternative school, for science study, she said. “You see the birds feeding all over the fields,” Smith said. “It’s an important part of that ecosystem.”

Carrie Hite, who directs the parks, recreation and cultural service department for the city of Edmonds, said development of a sports complex has been talked about since 2001. The city and school district worked to develop a plan for it but lacked money until last year.

Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling asked the Snohomish Health District to take a look at the issue of potential health risks. Dr. Gary Goldbaum, who heads the public health agency, responded: “At this time the science suggests to me that there are no significant health risks” from crumb rubber used in artificial fields.

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

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