Issue & Analyses: There Is A Safe And More Affordable Alternative To Toxic Synthetic Turf

Athletic Fields at Amherst Regional High School and Amherst Regional Middle School.

The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council on November 18, 2022 in anticipation of a scheduled vote at their November 21, 2022 meeting. Fifty people and organizations had signed on at that time and more are welcome to add their names via this form.


Thank you for your continued service in support of the health and wellbeing of residents and for your commitment to transparency, learning, and collaboration. We appreciate that as leaders you are asked to make decisions on a huge array of items and often with imperfect information. We are writing to ensure that we are playing our role in our participatory democracy and offering up our knowledge and perspective on a decision currently under consideration – the installation of artificial turf at Amherst Regional High School.

Our Recommendation
We write to ask you to vote NO to authorizing funding for artificial turf in the ARHS Track and Field Project and take another vote (or an amended motion) to authorize funding for Option 2: reorienting and expanding the track and installing a properly draining natural turf field.

We are fully supportive of providing our students and community members safe, well-draining, quality grass playing fields and maintaining them properly. The alternative to artificial turf is not the poorly constructed and poorly maintained fields that we currently have. There are case studies and pilot programs showing that the playable hours and maintenance costs for properly cared for grass fields are close to that of artificial products, while life cycle costs over 12 years for natural turf ($1.1-1.5 million) are half that of artificial turf ($2.5 million).

Health, Safety, And Environmental Risks Of Artificial Turf
All artificial turf contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the plastic “grass blades” and backing, regardless of the type of infill used. PFAS is absorbed through the skin, inhaled when disturbed, or ingested through hand-to-mouth contact. Research has linked PFAS to cancer, immune system deficiencies, low fertility and developmental issues in children and infants. Children are particularly vulnerable due to their smaller body mass and the on-going development of their organs. 

Some manufacturers and contractors have claimed that the product they are proposing is PFAS-free only to have testing of the actual product reveal PFAS. In addition, these products are not currently recyclable and are likely to end up either dumped or in landfills where toxic chemicals risk leaching into water bodies. 

Artificial turf presents other health-related concerns. These include heat-related injuries (the playing temperatures on artificial surfaces are many degrees higher than on grass), orthopedic injuries, skin infections, the presence of other toxic chemicals, particularly in crumb rubber infill, etc. These risks to athlete bodies are behind the US Women’s Soccer team refusal to play on artificial turf and the current negotiations by NFL players to remove it from the league.

PFAS and other health concerns were not presented or discussed during the ARPS Regional School Committee’s deliberations in March 2022, so it is not clear that members of the Committee were aware of them before they took their vote.

Public Health, Legislative, And Other Municipal Leadership On PFAS
The Town Council has recently heard from the Chair of the Amherst Board of Health (BOH) stating her opposition to the installation of artificial turf. Similar concerns were expressed by other BOH members at their November 10, 2022 meeting. This is consistent with their recent work to update their Toxic Chemical Regulations which states that “Products containing PFAS should be avoided to the extent feasible.”

These concerns and actions by the Amherst Board of Health are mirrored in the actions of other leaders across the state. Several state legislators (including our own MA State Senator Jo Comerford) have proposed legislation to restrict products that contain PFAS. Boston’s Mayor Wu has banned artificial turf from city parks. Other Massachusetts towns such as Concord, Sharon, and Wayland have passed moratoriums on the installation of artificial turf.

We have compiled resources that detail both the substantial and growing body of evidence around PFAS and other components of artificial turf as well as the actions taken by several municipalities in Massachusetts to avoid the unnecessary risks of this product. They are also available as an attachment to this email.

Addressing Maintenance
The literature states that artificial turf must be replaced every 8-10 years at an estimated cost of up to 75% of the initial installation plus the costs of disposal. We do not believe this reality was fully considered, or budgeted into the long-term capital plan. We would strongly encourage the establishment of a maintenance fund and practices to ensure that an investment in all our natural turf playing fields is protected for years to come. As the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at UMass-Lowell explains: “In many cases, a community may not need to take costly or time-consuming steps. Simple changes such as regular mowing and aeration, along with adjustments to fertilizer use, may be all that is necessary to reach the quality needed by the community. A spectrum of maintenance practices can be adopted depending on the community’s budget and goals.”

Voting History and Remedies
When the ARPS Regional School Committee took its borrowing authorization vote on March 15, 2022, School Finance Director Doug Slaughter offered a motion that would have allowed for any of the options presented. Despite multiple pleas on his part to retain that flexibility so that a second round of voting would not be required if, for any reason, it made sense to pursue Option 2, the committee modified the language to remove the option for natural turf (grass). In doing so, the Regional School Committee effectively tied the hands of the towns to either option 1 (only replacing the track) or option 3 (artificial turf). Again, at no time during deliberations was there any mention of PFAS or the specific health, safety, or environmental concerns of artificial turf. 

Pelham’s Community Preservation Act (CPA) Committee recently voted against funding any project that uses artificial turf; Leverett CPA Committee has not yet made a decision and Shutesbury CPA Committee has not yet met to discuss the matter. The Pelham Board of Health is expected to consider the matter of artificial turf at its next meeting. The Board’s Chairperson has publicly expressed that he is opposed to artificial turf.

Conclusion
Because the votes so far have specified the use of artificial turf, the only way to move the project forward with a natural turf field is for relevant government bodies to vote down pending funding authorizations, rescind their previous votes, and take a new set of votes to approve a natural turf field (Option 2). That starts with the Amherst Town Council rejecting authorization of funding that specifies the inclusion of artificial turf on November 21, 2022.

Please say no to artificial turf and yes to Option 2. Let’s not be another “What Were They Thinking?

Maria Kopicki, Amherst
and fifty individuals and organizations

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3 thoughts on “Issue & Analyses: There Is A Safe And More Affordable Alternative To Toxic Synthetic Turf

  1. What did they know and when did they know it? The question needs to be asked of the Amherst Schools Committee. The apparent answers are troubling. The SC’s discussion and subsequent vote to install an artificial turf field at the high school happened without any mention of the well-known hazards posed by high PFAS content in artificial turf. Was the school committee unaware of the potential danger to the children who would be using the fields and to the surrounding communities from these toxic forever chemicals? That’s hard to believe since communities around the Commonwealth are considering the dangers and even a cursory Google search turns up pages of alarming reports. So did the SC fail to do the most basic due diligence on this consequential decision or did they know and purposefully exclude information that they knew would reflect poorly on their choice and that might jeopardize the decision that they favored? In either case, the proceedings thus far reflect very poorly on the SC. And now, the Town Council is poised to vote on allocating the money for this project before receiving a report that they themselves have requested from the Amherst Board of Health. Preliminary indications are that the BOH has grave concerns about the safety of synthetic turf and it looks like the Council intends to push through a decision before that report comes to light. The approach strikes me as reckless and incompetent. There’s no emergency here. There is time to get the facts, understand the dangers, and weigh them carefully. To ignore known health hazards and not explore the implications, to expose our community to dangerous carcinogens without assessing the danger, is inexcusable. I’ve heard no rationale for ignoring the health hazards posed, other than the decision has already been made. This is unacceptable and the litigation surrounding PFAS installation elsewhere and the outright bans of synthetic turf being adopted by other municipalities ought to be a warning to the Town Council and the SC that you can’t sweep the dangers under the rug and make them go away by pretending that they don’t exist.

  2. Two members of the Regional School Committee (Margaret Stancer of Pelham and Jennifer Shiao of Amherst) said at their meeting last week that they did not know about PFAS and other concerns of artificial turf when they voted last March, and both asked that the topic of artificial turf be put on a future agenda now that this information is known. The discussion is quite something and worth a watch: https://youtu.be/WCrSFeHPdoc?t=5031
    (Watch from about 1hr20m until 1hr40m)

    Multiple Town Councilors said at the joint Council/Finance Committee meeting in mid-October that they had not known about PFAS in turf.

    I would argue it is most definitely not too late to pivot to natural turf, now that information has come to light that should give everyone pause. No money has been borrowed. No contract has been signed. To my knowledge, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury have not yet debated and voted on the combined $360,000 still expected from those towns to move forward with a larger project. Those amounts would presumably not be voted on until their spring 2023 Town Meetings so it would not delay anything to have them also re-vote the local taxation/regional capital assessment. The Amherst Town Council, the Community Preservation Act Committee, and the Regional School Committee could re-take their previous votes (that had stipulated the synthetic turf option) at any time, although the latter may want to wait until within 60 days of the regional towns’ spring Town Meetings so as to give them an opportunity to put it on their warrants alongside any other votes related to the project.

  3. Williamstown MA school committee recently went through the same decision making process. After years of investigation and discussion, the school committee wisely chose to build a new track with a natural grass field.

    School Co member Carrie Greene: “This is not just about the risks of synthetic turf or the political expediency of getting this done,” Greene said, reading from a proposal advanced by the Finance Subcommittee by a vote of 2-0-1. “It is also about the benefits of creating a first-class, fully organic campus with a staff that can both model and share best practices with the rest of our district. A properly constructed and maintained grass field should be able to meet the playability needs of the district. It will also enable us to take other fields offline for reconstruction with a goal of having all seven fields (as well as baseball/softball fields) achieving maximum playability of modern grass fields.” https://www.iberkshires.com/story/66969/Mount-Greylock-School-Committee-Advances-Natural-Grass-Playing-Field-Plan.html

    There are so many reasons not to chose artificial turf – environmental impact, health and safety, temperatures of field, lifetime cost, PFAs, microplastic pollution, carbon footprint, lack of recycling facilities. I urge Amherst Town Council to take its time making this decision. Not all schools are choosing artificial turf.

    It is understandable the student athletes and their families want good athletic facilities. We can do that without installing toxic plastic fields. There are lots of resources to help and examples to follow.

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