A synthetic playing field found to contain high levels of lead has touched off a new round of fighting in a long-term “turf battle” over the fate of New York City’s artificial fields.
The high lead results of the test on Thomas Jefferson Park field, in East Harlem at 113th Street and First Avenue, were made public in December. The field, whose turf was installed five years ago, was closed in order be replaced with a new surface. The Parks Department tested the five other fields made by the same manufacturer (all are in other boroughs) and found the lead levels to be negligible. Now testing is being performed on all 111 of the city’s crumb rubber fields, including those in Riverside Park at 101st, 104th and 107th streets. So far, results have all been negative, according to Parks Department Spokesman Phil Abramson.
At a public hearing Feb. 9, Nancy Clark, an assistant commission at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that, “the source of the lead contamination at the Thomas Jefferson Park field is not known, but it is most likely due to external contamination.”
However some legislators and activists did not think the city’s response went far enough. At the same hearing, members of the City Council introduced several proposals to address the issue. One proposal mandated extensive testing of artificial fields. But a second and more controversial proposal, sponsored by Queens Council Member Eric Gioia, would necessitate replacing all fields made from “crumb rubber or crumb rubber infill” within a year of enactment.
“When it comes to the health of our children we have to get it right. We need to know definitively if these fields are dangerous to our kids health—and a moratorium gives us the time needed to examine them,” said Gioia, who is also running for Public Advocate.
Those in favor of Gioia’s proposal say that crumb rubber fields contain potentially hazardous chemicals other than lead and should be replaced as soon as possible with grass or alternative materials.
“We’ve been asking for this for years,” said Geoffrey Croft of the group NYC Park Advocates, a nonprofit dedicated to improving park space. “That material, recycled tires, is considered hazardous material in many states. But here in New York City we are actually buying it for our children and the public to play on.”
Croft’s only concern with the legislation is that it calls for replacement within a year. His group wants to see enough time allotted for the most thorough testing of potential field materials possible—testing that does not come from an agency under the city’s jurisdiction or from an interested party. In the past, Croft says the city has relied on a study commissioned by a tire company; the city has responded that a health department review of scientific research relating to turf fields concluded there was no risk associated with the materials.
And so it is no surprise that the Parks Department opposes Gioia’s resolution, maintaining that turf fields provide playing and recreational space in areas that would be otherwise unusable. The department plans to use more advanced materials for future turf fields, such as ecofill, a material made from sneakers rather than tires. Still, officials maintain that it’s unnecessary to replace current fields ahead of schedule.
“We don’t feel [the bill] is warranted,” Abramson said. “We tested for lead and it hasn’t been a factor in any of the other fields. We’re encouraged by that. Now we’re testing materials prior to installation, for lead as well as other variables.”
City officials also maintain that grass fields have their own attendant environmental hazards, as they require pesticides to maintain. Furthermore, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have both gone on the record saying the health risks from obesity and lack of activity seem more dire than those posed by chemicals on the fields. Supporting that position are the leaders of the West Side Soccer League, who depend on the fields in Riverside Park, Harlem and beyond for games.
“If there’s something bad out there, we should fix it. Somebody should test it, the results should be public,” said Dana DiPrima, commissioner of the West Side Soccer League. “But a similar type of field should not be condemned just because another field is condemned. We’d lose the fields, we’d lose a lot of physical activity, we’re going to lose two seasons.”
Croft, however, maintains that changing field materials would be less disruptive than the athletes fear, and the real holdup for the city is cost and liability rather than time. He also notes that many grass fields in Battery Park are organically maintained and don’t require chemicals.
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