OPINION: Say No to Artificial Turf at DeHart Park
The Maplewood Township Committee (TC) is attempting to replace the natural grass field at DeHart Park in the Hilton Neighborhood with artificial turf. On May 18 a generic “Fields” was on discussion items for the agenda; however, it was evident proponents of placing artificial turf on DeHart Field were well aware of the specific topic, as they were present and prepared to speak. For the June 1 meeting, there was nothing up for discussion; and yet the TC presented their plan to pay a consultant regarding turfing DeHart and proponents were once again prepared to speak. On June 15, “DeHart Park” was a discussion item, with no mention of turf. A consultant presented a report (misleading at best) that had not been made public; and yet proponents had clearly seen it ahead of time given the comments they made specific to its contents.
Throughout all of this, there was no consultation with residents of the Hilton Neighborhood or with relevant advisory committees. The TC in this case appears to be trying to push through a proposal without community input.
Artificial turf has numerous negative health and environmental concerns (here and here), especially for our youth, and the TC has been alerted to all of this in a letter from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. As members of the Hilton Neighborhood, we are demanding that TC keep DeHart a grass field. The Hilton Neighborhood is more than 70% BIPOC and has the lowest per capita incomes and greatest percentage of the population by census tract. Given the health and environmental concerns detailed below, placing artificial turf in our only greenspace would be an environmental injustice. Furthermore, losing greenspace would disproportionately and negatively impact the housing values (here and here) of the most socially vulnerable residents of Maplewood (CDC data PDF, CDC info, and searchable data here). We also demand that the TC no longer neglect DeHart; maintaining it as a grass playing field for both athletes and non-athletes is possible and fiscally more responsible (here and here). If it is at times unplayable, it is because the Township has neglected to maintain it as promised a decade ago.
Artificial turf is composed of plastic “grass” and a cushioning fill on top of multiple layers of polymers, sand, silica, and other materials. There is extensive evidence and a general scientific consensus that turf and its components, particularly the recycled synthetic rubber tires that are most commonly used in the cushioning fill, are composed of a cocktail of elements and chemicals that leach into our environment. Chemicals identified in turf include metals such as zinc, arsenic, cadmium, and lead, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalates, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and antimicrobial compounds (see here). These chemicals are widely known to be neurotoxicants, carcinogens, mutagens, and endocrine disruptors. The presence of these hazardous chemicals in turf and turf components is widely established in the scientific literature and recognized by the EPA.
Importantly, very few studies have directly looked at human health outcomes in association with spending time on turf fields. Those that exist have looked at cancer in athletes and found no significant associations, only anecdotes. This is unsurprising to environmental health scientists because humans are constantly exposed to mixtures of chemicals such that it is very difficult to detect health outcomes in human observational studies. In addition, the only health outcome that has been studied is cancer, but many of these chemicals have health effects beyond cancer. Endocrine disrupting chemicals, in particular, are very relevant because they disrupt development and the reproductive system at low levels, such as what we are exposed to every day. Human and animal studies of these chemicals suggest that we should be worried about altered hormone levels, disruption of puberty, decreased fertility, obesity, and many other health effects in our children many years after their exposure to turf and similar compounds.
Our society is structured such that chemicals are developed into products that improve our lives and sold to us before they are thoroughly and independently tested for safety. Once they’re out, it is nearly impossible to stop their use. That is why turf is present in so many communities, and yet banned in others (see below).
For an expanded overview of turf toxicology, you may watch Dr. Genoa Warner’s presentation here.
In addition to posing risks to young athletes, the components of artificial turf are also hazardous for our local community and environment. These chemicals can leach into soil and wash into local waterways. Furthermore, they may be transformed in the environment into degradation products that may be more hazardous than the original compounds but are still unknown to us. For example, a transformation product of a tire preservative was recently identified from thousands of unidentified environmental contaminants as the cause of salmon kills after rainstorms in the Pacific Northwest. Unidentified chemicals could cause similar environmental risks in our community.
Replacing grass at DeHart with artificial turf would additionally deprive the community of access to green space, which is associated with improved health. Green space in urban environments is an environmental justice issue as well, with less affluent communities less likely to contain green parks.
Finally, artificial turf poses heat risks to young athletes. The field may reach temperatures of 40-70 degrees hotter than surrounding air temperature on a warm, summer day. The Coolplay technology allegedly addresses this, but it requires regular watering to do so (see below). Right now DeHart Field is a cool respite in an otherwise densely populated part of town (see heat map); the environmental impact of losing this green space is an injustice because surrounding temperatures and air quality will be negatively impacted.
An artificial turf is not the most fiscally and communally responsible use of taxpayer’s money. The TC has proposed 1.8 million dollars to turf DeHart Field through Colliers Engineering and Design. Whether this is funded through the Open Space Trust Fund or the regular capital budget, it would leave less funds for other open space, recreation, and conservation purposes. The money would be used to convert a public-use field effectively into a sports complex to “serve U-10/U-11 soccer, U-13/U-19 soccer and 46/60 softball,” diverting funds away from more pressing community needs and toward the misplaced desires of those who can afford the soccer program in town. The 700 youth athletes playing in Cougar soccer (reprenting 9.5% of all eligible children) deserve a playable field, but not at the expense of their and others’ health, the environment, and green space.
Finally, given the growing list of lawsuits against artificial turf producers and city- and county-wide moratoriums on the use of artificial turf (the D.C. moratorium is a relevant example), it is eminently irresponsible to proceed with this project. Residents of other NJ towns are demanding likewise.
Colliers Proposal: Misleading to False Statements
For starters, it is troubling that the Colliers Proposal uses FieldTurf given its history selling faulty fields in NJ (the salesperson repeatedly described Coolplay technology, which is used only by FieldTurf). Additionally, the Colliers salesperson presented a proposal with falsehoods and lacking additional developmental costs specific to DeHart Field. It seems the proposal is from as early as 2017 and for another town. He refers to Maplewood as a “Borough” (p. 6, first attachment) and the most recent study in the list of “information on environmental factors and research on synthetic turf fields in the last 5 years” (p. 2, letter) is from 2017, and the only one within last 5 years.
No maintenance? No shutdowns?
The salesperson pointed to overuse of the grass field as the cause of the problem; but again, there are case studies arguing otherwise. He stated that artificial turf fields do not need to be shut down for periodic maintenance; but the FieldTurf literature suggests similar if not more maintenance and shutdowns are required (in addition to the three-month settling of infill required after construction and when infill is added or replaced). The salesperson stated that maintaining FieldTurf is cheaper than grass fields, but this is arguable given other examples. If the Township proposes this field last 15 years, then the cost of maintenance increases exponentially after year ten, when the warranty would expire.
The salesperson stated that no watering is necessary, but this is questionable. He proposed ‘CoolPlay’ (a technology of FieldTurf) as infill. This is made with controversial crumb rubber and other (unpublished) polymers. FieldTurf claims in their literature that dew moisture is sufficient to cool the turf and that it does not require watering. However, according to his numbers, temperature with Coolplay would still be well above 120ºF on a warm summer day; and if FieldTurf’s Coolplay is the only option, then one wonders why we are working with such a company.
No Toxic Maintenance Chemicals?
The FieldTurf maintenance guide has chemicals which are far worse than anything required for non-organic grass fields (much less organic fields). For example, fire extinguishers are recommended for extinguishing flames sparked by fireworks (of which there are many in the neighborhood). Fire extinguisher chemicals can then pollute the field with toxic chemicals. More routinely, Round Up (facing thousands of lawsuits on possible carcinogenic effects) is recommended to control weeds and moss that will inevitably pervade the field as it ages and breaks down. Along with the toxins in the field materials themselves, this is quite a cocktail proposed for our young athletes for other children playing in and around DeHart Field.
Stormwater and “State of the Art” Infiltration System
The salesperson stated that the field will be designed to infiltrate as much water as possible to not exceed runoff restrictions. How? At what expense? He admits later in the report that a stormwater detention system (p. 7, first attachment) is most likely needed due to the newest stormwater runoff restrictions. This is the one environmentally friendly thing we read, however he failed to include the potential cost for this state of the art system. In brief, it is not included in the estimate.
Unexpected Costs, Tree Removal
The Township is budgeting around 1.8 million dollars for the next 15 years. Does the 1.8 million include the necessary yet excluded items from the basic services of the contract such as, fencing to protect the field, stormwater detention system, and tree removal planning, permitting, and implementation. This last one is most concerning. Artificial turf cannot have natural debris on the field, which damages it. It also cannot have any shade or moss growth becomes a major issue (see p. 28 of maintenance guide). Why was tree removal left off the report? To avoid controversy? How many trees will have to be removed?
For all these extra services not included in the contract, which we can expect to amount to a very large sum, the salesperson could not offer the current schedule of hourly rates that would be invoiced for these additional services.
We have on the table a proposal filled with misleading statements, dated reports, and unknown costs. Would it be responsible to move forward without addressing all these questions? Should a more thorough and updated proposal be requested? We are relying on our elected officials to plan major alterations to our valuable open space properly and responsibly. They clearly are not.
For additional questions and concerns regarding the proposal, you may view comments here.
Hilton Neighborhood and Recreational Needs: Environmental Justice
The Hilton Neighborhood is the most densely populated part of the Township. Our yards are smaller to nonexistent, many of us live in apartments with no green space, and we have fewer and smaller trees. DeHart Field provides a much needed respite in this area, especially for the Lightning Brook section the residents of which live even further from other green space (such as Maplecrest). The field is not only used by athletic teams; young children play on it, families have picnics on it, and it is used for other recreational activities. Not only will safe access to the field no longer be possible should it be turfed, but the surrounding grassy areas, the trail, and the playground will likely be contaminated with the same toxic materials detailed above. Turf particles and fibers are tracked by athletes leaving the field, especially if poorly maintained, or carried away by storms into the surrounding areas. Toddlers and young children will not even have to be on the field to risk exposure. Furthermore, on hot summer days the heat radiating off the field will make the air quality surrounding trail unpleasant. Taking away our neighborhood’s only green space is an environmental injustice. We are against a turf field in any part of Maplewood, but one wonders how the rest of Maplewood would respond if a turf field were proposed at Maplecrest or Memorial Parks.
This is not to ignore the needs of young field athletes in Maplewood, many of whom are Hilton residents. DeHart Field needs to be maintained for our organized athletic teams. The reason why the field is at times unusable is not because it is a grass field, but because the Township has failed to maintain it as promised a decade ago. There are many grass playing fields being maintained for extensive field sport play; you may learn about successful case studies in MA and PA here.
Demand More From Maplewood Township Committee
The solution to Township neglect should not be environmental injustice. We thus urge the TC to commit to repairing and maintaining the grass field at DeHart rather than take the easy but environmentally unjust and physically unhealthy way out. We demand the TC stop neglecting its responsibilities and implement a plan with the proper budget to maintain DeHart as a grass playing field. We are here precisely because the Township failed to maintain DeHart Field, and now the TC wants to hastily replace it with an artificial turf field. The TC and the community should review the relevant scientific literature before proceeding with such a costly project. Rushing to turf DeHart Field without community engagement and proper research is poor governance. You can do better. We can do better. Please, do the environmentally just thing!
We urge all concerned Maplewood residents to attend the July 6 TC meeting and make your voices heard!
Genoa R. Warner, PhD, is a resident of the Hilton Neighborhood and an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at NJIT.
Camilla Flannery, RA NCARB CPHC is a resident of the Hilton Neighborhood and a Registered Architect licensed in NJ and NY.
Axel M. Oaks Takacs, ThD, is a resident of the Hilton Neighborhood and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Seton Hall University.