Hidden gotcha in artificial turf installations
When school systems, universities and colleges or local governments install artificial turf fields, they all look bright, shiny green, and clean. How many of these buyers are paying attention to the end game – the disposal of many tons of hazardous waste?
Intrepid coverage by Sharon Lerner of The Intercept, in collaboration with scientists at the Ecology Center (Ann Arbor), found that what are known as “forever chemicals” – PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) – are used in the manufacture of artificial turf. They help in making the artificial grass sheets that need to be pushed through an extruder to get the correct size and shape. This process goes more smoothly if PFAS chemicals are added to the plastic before the blades are extruded.
“Forever” does not mean that they will stay in the “blades of grass” forever. This means that they take a very long time to deteriorate in the environment. And instead of staying in the blades, they travel by leaching and volatilizing. With artificial turf surface temperatures well over 120 ° F on hot, sunny days, this trip should come as no surprise. How much PFAS children breathe in when playing football has not been quantified.
However, the chemicals also move slowly: via dump trucks to landfills and landfills. This is because artificial turf fields that are used in sports must be replaced after a service life of between five and ten years. Tear up the old. Lie down in the new, shiny green again.
Are PFAS a threat to human health? Dr. Linda Birnbaum, shortly before her retirement as director of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, concluded that the “safe” PFOA level needs to be lowered to 0.1 parts per trillion, 700 times lower than the current EPA standard. And anyone interested in learning more about this family of chemicals and their effects on human and animal health should watch Mark Ruffalo’s new film Dark Waters, a dark story about how DuPont purposefully hid the chemical’s dangers for decades. The film opens in Charlottesville and in theaters across the country on Friday, December 6th.
Industry websites say the used lawn can be dumped in any landfill (for example here). However, when it comes to PFAS assembly, this is very likely to change.
This problem became personal when I learned that my wonderful County Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall Ward, Albemarle County, Virginia) of the University of Virginia learned of the illegal dumping of used lawn.
A neighbor of mine had called her, confused by a row of large dump trucks driving up a nearby mountain on a dirt road. The neighbor told Mallek that he was so surprised by the unusual volume of traffic that he finally stopped one of the drivers and entertained him.
The driver told him he had taken used turf from the university but that was okay, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality had approved it. This seemed unusual to Ann; She was not aware of any legal dump on that particular mountain. So she called the university. Her contact there assured her that DEQ had agreed. Then she called DEQ who didn’t know about it. It was an illegal dump set up by an enterprising landowner to help preserve the lawn.
The landowner had the turf removed following a formal report of a violation from Albemarle County, but it was accidentally rediscovered a few months later after being relocated to another location on the mountain by a stream. The county had to get involved again, and this time the turf was eventually taken to a landfill where hazardous waste could be disposed of.
All 199 tons of it. From just two soccer fields.
The choice of a hazardous waste dump was random at that time … PFAS in artificial turf had not yet become an issue. And the dramatic nationwide increase in toxicity concerns about the compounds had not become a local problem.
In her article cited above, Sharon Lerner tells the story of scientists who find a particular PFAS, PFOS, in both abandoned turf and adjacent creek water near Franklin, Massachusetts. City officials told her they knew nothing about dangerous chemicals in artificial turf.
We can no longer allow officials to plead ignorance. Candy Woodall of the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania provides an example of the work that needs to be done: The newspaper has done an excellent job exposing the unregulated turf industry and examining the pressures the industry is putting on the environment and neighbors due to the current shortage at imposed rules or supervision.
With awareness of the health effects of PFAS growing across the country, calculations of what artificial turf facilities will actually cost over their lifetime, including disposal in facilities where hazardous chemicals can be handled, can come as a shock to the artificial turf industry and many others Schools and sports facilities that want more shiny green.
Pete Myers is the founder and chief scientist of Environmental Health Sciences, which publish Environmental Health News.