The Parks and Recreation Commission listens to public comment on synthetic turf at a June 2015 meeting. Photos: Jason Ruiz
After nearly a two hour discussion on the potential health risks of petroleum based product being placed on new synthetic soccer fields in the city the Parks and Recreation Commission changed direction and voted to approve a recommendation to the city manager’s office that an all-natural alternative filler be used for future projects.
Complaints from community members about the potential exposure to harmful chemicals and the propensity for rubber infill to create spikes in field temperature led the commission to recommend the use of a coconut-based fiber as the material that should be used for synthetic surfaces installed in the city. The increased cost of the organic infill though could cause the shortfall of funds which might force plans for fences and lights for the fields to be abandoned.
If passed, the decision will not only affect the three soccer fields identified by a 2013 vote by the City Council that set aside $3.5 million for turf conversion projects, but all similar projects going forward citywide. Soccer fields at Admiral Kidd, Seaside and El Dorado West Parks are set to receive their synthetic turf soccer fields but the polarizing issue at the meeting was the safety of using recycled rubber pellets as infill for the surface.
Outgoing Parks, Recreation and Marine Director George Chapjian pointed out that of the about 11,000 synthetic surface fields in the country nearly 95 percent employ “crumb rubber” as the infill as it provides a reliable, cost effective and water-friendly alternative to traditional grass fields.
Water was a main focus of the city’s implementation of synthetic surfaces, but given the Long Beach Water Department’s scaling up to a Stage 2 water shortage and Governor Jerry Brown’s call to replace upward of 50 million square feet of commercial lawns, Chapjian said the city’s fundamental ability to provide year-round athletic facilities has been changed.
“Given the drought conditions the city can no longer rely on water as part of the field renovation practices,” Chapjian said.
As part of the proposed Senate Bill 47, which calls for moratorium on the installation of synthetic fields while an analysis of the health risks of its components can be carried out, the city provided several alternatives in the memo discussed by the commission. However, Chapjian, a former semi-pro soccer player, sided with reports findings that the more cost effective rubber crumbs made up of recycled tires were not only more fiscally responsible but also that they posed no imminent threat.
“No study has identified a direct correlation between crumb rubber turf infill and cancer,” Chapjian said.
In 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency took the stance that rubber crumbs posed a "low level concern" but backtracked on that statement just four years later, stating in 2013 that its initial analysis was flawed and based on a small sample size. Several members of the public took issue not only with the health risks, including potential exposure of children to cancer-causing carcinogens, but also the more immediate heat-related issues posed by using a rubber surface.
The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which began earlier this month, made headlines for becoming the first tournament of its magnitude to be played exclusively on synthetic turf and again when one of its opening round games had field temperatures reported at close to 120 degrees by The Washington Post. The choice to use the turf was also the subject of a lawsuit from several high-profile athletes that claimed it was violation of the Canadian human right’s act because the country would’ve never forced a men’s tournament to play on the “unsafe” surface. The lawsuit was subsequently dropped but complaints about the performance of the surface persist.
Several residents referenced the heat issues and the lawsuit filed against FIFA as proof that if the best soccer players in the world are unwilling to play on the surface there must be some truth to safety issues. The increased wear and tear that a hard synthetic surface can have on a person’s joints which increases recovering time and heightens the chance of certain types of injuries.
“You will destroy children if you have them playing matches on these fields,” said one resident of the Third District. “It was not made for that. It’s one thing to play baseball on it, it’s another thing to play football on it but to play soccer on it is something completely else.”
Others focused on the environmental impacts that introducing the rubber crumbs create, likening the field to a de-facto “hazardous waste site” that would likely contaminate the storm drains when the rubber pellets are washed away by irrigation. They called the savings on water, what’s expected to be about 90 percent of the amount of water needed to maintain a traditional grass field, marginal and called for a refurbished real grass field.
“We do this for our dogs and for our golfers and nobody complains about the water that is spent on golf courses and dog parks,” said Ann Cantrell, a community activist. “I think we can do the least for our children.”
The GeoFill product that is composed of coconut fiber costs a projected $1.25 per pound, nearly three times as much as the originally proposed acrylic-coated rubber crumbs. However, the coconut product which has been present on Italian soccer fields for over a decade and is present in a field at the Google Corporate Campus has been shown to reduce surface heat by at least 10 percent when compared to the rubber crumbs. It would also absorb more water used to cleanse and cool the surface.
The coconut infill would have a lifespan of 2-3 years instead of the roughly 10 year lifespan of the rubber crumbs. It would also cost about $50,000 more per field according to Chapjian’s estimations, something that a few commissioners took issue with. However eliminating the risk of potential exposure to harmful chemicals and saving water were ultimately what led to the change in vote.
The water saving figures were immediately unavailable but Chapjian conceded that the coconut product would also use less water than traditional grass, a notion that vice president of the commission Ben Goldberg used in conjunction to alleviating health concerns to push for its adoption.
“In my mind, at this point with the amount of information that we do have as a commission I will feel so much more comfortable knowing that we spent the extra money to cut the risk out,” Goldberg said. “I’m not saying that the coated crumb rubber is toxic, because we don’t know that but there are studies that say it is. What we do know is that it is a little warmer and it does make sense that a natural material that has absorption and will hold water better.”
Shaw Sports Turf Territory Manager Leie Sualua spoke the advantages of having an organic-based infill. Sualua, coined “the coconut man” by the commission, represents the company that would facilitate the infill process if the city adopts the coconut fiber infill suggestion. He said that the turf at the Google facility is watered one to two times a month and that it became the the infill choice of Italy only after it banned rubber crumbs. Referring to it as the future of turf, he said that the coconut fibers would be safe except for an extremely small percentage of the population.
“The only thing you have to worry about is somebody possibly being allergic to coconuts,” Sualua said.