Synthetic turf in historic landmark Yale Bowl?

When the Yale Bowl was built in 1913-1914, it was the first stadium of its kind. It inspired many other stadiums to be built using the Bowl as the model — including the Rose Bowl.

The Yale Bowl has had a grass playing field since its inception. Tom Pepe, Yale’s sports turf supervisor in charge of the field describes how the turf is cared for and says proudly, “To keep the natural playing surface in the Yale Bowl in pristine condition, the staff aerates the soil and performs sand-top dressing. This has been done for about 15 years, so we haven’t had to sod our football field in three or four years.”

Yet the Yale football coach, Tony Reno, in pushing for an artificial turf field, said in the Hartford Courant, “The stadium is actually below sea level, so it’s hard to maintain a grass surface.

The Yale Bowl is a National Historic Landmark. This designation is a grade above being on the National Register of Historic Places. How will a synthetic turf field, which is made up of acres of green plastic blades infilled with 40,000 ground up rubber tires, look in this National Historic Landmark? How will putting down acres of green plastic be in compliance with Yale’s desire to be environmentally responsible?

First, lets explore the health issues of synthetic turf fields. A recent study conducted at Yale University looked at what chemicals are in synthetic turf. The preliminary data found 96 chemicals in synthetic turf, and many of them are carcinogenic.

The nonprofit Environment and Human Health Inc., (EHHI) made up of 10 physicians and public health professionals, (many of whom are on the Yale Medical School faculty), studied the harmful effects of synthetic turf for over nine years — and their conclusion is that these fields are toxic.

EHHI recommended a moratorium on installing synthetic turf fields in 2007 because of the carcinogens in the fields, but the recommendation was not adopted. EHHI said at that time that we would start to see cancers among our student athletes who have played on synthetic fields in about 10 years. It has now been about 10 years and we are indeed seeing cancers develop — especially among soccer players. In fact, the soccer playing goalkeepers are the most heavily impacted with lymphomas and leukemias. With 127 lymphomas and leukemias reported among soccer players — 85 of these are goalkeepers. Both those cancers are environmentally influenced.

Joel Smilow has been very generous to Yale. The Yale University Medical Center now has the Smilow Cancer Center that is benefiting so many people. How ironic it would be if a synthetic turf field was installed in the Yale Bowl that contained known carcinogens, while Yale’s Joel E. Smilow ‘54 Head Coach of Football had to lead Yale football players on it.

Now, we turn to the Yale Bowl being designated as a National Historic Landmark. National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the secretary of the interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States. Will our heritage be illustrated when the surface of the Bowl is covered, not with natural grass as it always has been, but with acres of plastic?

What will the preservation community think of what Yale is proposing to do to the Bowl? We have not even mentioned that the proposal also includes putting a bubble over the Bowl.

If Yale follows through with this proposal, what will they do next? Will Yale recommend plastic grass for the Cross Campus lawn so that they won’t have to mow it?

The proposal to install a synthetic turf field in the Yale Bowl, as well as cover the Bowl at times with a bubble, is neither compatible with either the way Yale renovates its buildings or how Yale aims to reduce its carbon footprint and be environmentally responsible. We will hope Yale’s better thinking will prevail and that the grass field will remain in the Yale Bowl. There is no safer surface for students to play on than natural grass.

This column was signed by Pinar Kodaman, Yale BS ’94, MD/PhD ’01 — Yale University School of Medicine; Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences; Susan Addiss MPH, MUrS Yale ’69 — past commissioner of the state Department of Public Health; Hugh Taylor, MD, Anita O’Keefe Young Professor and Chair of the Yale Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences; Robert LaCamera, clinical professor of pediatrics, Yale University School of Medicine; Nancy Alderman, Yale ’94, Yale FES ’97 — past adviser to the National Trust, and president of Environment and Human Health Inc., and Andrea Asnes, MD, MSW, associate professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine.