Heat waves bring warnings about synthetic turf risks

This summer’s waves of blistering temperatures and oppressive humidity are also bringing renewed warnings about the risks to young athletes playing on super-hot synthetic turf fields.

Synthetic or artificial turf playing fields have become increasingly popular in communities across Connecticut despite activists’ concerns about potential health hazards associated with them. Artificial turf advocates insist they are safer and less expensive to maintain than natural grass fields, but admit that extremely high temperatures can pose problems for anyone playing on them.

The Synthetic Turf Council, an industry group, warns that, “In direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day in the summer months, the upper layer of the synthetic turf that is exposed to the sun’s rays will get significantly hotter than grass.”

Activists who oppose artificial turf are outspoken about what they consider a very serious health threat.

“When temperatures reach 90 degrees, synthetic turf fields have been measured at 165 degrees,” according to Nancy Alderman, president of the North Haven-based nonprofit group Environment and Human Health Inc. She said such temperatures are “dangerous for athletes who play on these fields and especially dangerous for smaller children.”

The Synthetic Turf Council recommends that practices and events on synthetic turf fields be scheduled for cooler hours of the morning or evening during high-temperature summer months, that activities be limited in duration and intensity and that athletes be especially well-hydrated and regularly given breaks.

In towns like Windsor, where the high school’s Jack O’Brien Stadium was refurbished with a synthetic turf field in 2014, officials say they are well aware of the heat risks.

“We’ve had days in August [during pre-season football practice] … when we had to bring everybody inside,” said Steve Risser, Windsor High School’s athletic director. He said school officials monitor heat and humidity at the field when teams are scheduled to practice or play, “and if conditions are that hot, we’re coming inside.”

Cory DeGiacomo is Windsor High School’s certified athletic trainer and does most of the heat monitoring for the school’s synthetic field.

DeGiacomo uses a digital thermometer that can “scan the turf” and record temperatures. He said the general temperature above the field can be as high as 94 degrees and there may not be any problems playing on it as long as the humidity isn’t terrible.

On many hot days, the scanning thermometer shows the temperatures on the artificial turf running about 10 degrees hotter than the air, DeGiacomo said. He said any time the heat and humidity get close to the recommended warning levels, Windsor High officials get athletes off the field.

Non-school teams also use O’Brien Stadium’s synthetic field during the summer and Rich Henderson, Windsor’s assistant director of parks and recreation, said it’s up to the coaches of those teams to monitor the field’s heat and cancel if they consider it too hot.

Bloomfield High School also recently installed a synthetic turf field and officials there say they also closely monitor field temperatures during the hottest months. “Our team has been avoiding the [synthetic] turf on the excessively hot days and we don’t work out until 5 to 6 p.m. anyway,” Bloomfield High School’s director of athletics, Tammy Schondelmayer, said in an email.

Many of the health concerns about synthetic turf are related to the use of ground-up rubber tires – known as crumb rubber – to fill in between the artificial leaves of grass.

Activists point to the fact that the crumb rubber contains numerous chemicals considered potentially toxic or cancerous, and have raised questions about the number of soccer goalies who played on crumb rubber fields and have come down with different forms of cancer. But many government and industry studies found no danger to people playing on crumb rubber fields.

The potential health risks have convinced some Connecticut municipalities and schools to seek other types of artificial fields that don’t use crumb rubber, although those alternatives are often more expensive.

“We didn’t use crumb rubber,” said Patrick T. Hankard, director of facility operations for the South Windsor Board of Education. South Windsor last year spent $1.52 million to install a new synthetic turf field that uses an acrylic-coated sand instead of crumb rubber at the high school.

Hankard said artificial fields get so hot in the summer largely because of the crumb rubber infill, which he called “the primary source of heat.”

“The synthetic sand is a little bit cooler,” Hankard said. “But it’s still hot as heck” during heat waves, he said.

Hamden officials are also opting for a non-crumb rubber type of in-fill for a new artificial baseball field and a multipurpose field being installed in that town.

The alternative infill material is called GeoFill and is made up of sand and other “organic materials,” such as coconut husk and cork, according to town officials. “This infill choice also stays much cooler than other infill choices, allowing for safer and more comfortable playing surface conditions even in hot weather,” Hamden officials said in a news release earlier this month.- Gregory B. Hladky