Sunday, June 9, 2013

Will the Field of Dreams Become a Field of Nightmares?

NMSU and the Las Cruces School Board are each considering making the same costly mistake: replacing grass with artificial turf in the Chihuahuan Desert.

One expert termed NMSU’s plan “absolutely ridiculous.”  The likely rationalization is that the Sunbelt Conference requires it.

The School Board was to meet Friday to discuss the same idea.

Although debates continue over safety, third-generation artificial turf solves some of the problems posed by the earlier versions; and proponents claim the artificial turf would save water.

But the overwhelming weight of evidence says artificial turf on the Field of Dreams would be very expensive, pose serious health and injury risks, and might not even save water.  Any water savings would be offset by environmental problems.

It would cost around $1 million to install artificial turf, which would have a ten-year life-expectancy.  Some money would come from the state; and proponents say the school district could make up the difference with rental fees.  I have my doubts that in a community this size rental fees would suffice.   Further, after ten years the school would need to put in new artificial turf.  Once a community replaces grass with plastic (killing living organisms in the subsoil), a natural field can’t be grown on the site without years of soil remediation or complete subsoil replacement.

Proponents may not realize the maintenance costs.  Despite the marketing ploys of artificial turf manufacturers, synthetic fields require additional infill, chemical disinfectants, and drainage repair and maintenance.  A recent Michigan State University study put typical annual maintenance costs for artificial turf fields from $13,720 to $39,220, with costs for natural fields ranging from $8,133 to $48,960.  A University of Missouri turf specialist concluded that over 16 years it would cost $33,522 to maintain a natural soil-based field, $49,318 for a sand-cap grass field, $65,846 for a basic synthetic field, and $109,013 for a premium synthetic field.

Even the purported water savings could be illusory, particularly in our climate.  Surface temperatures of artificial turf go way up on hot days – as high as 200 degrees Fahrenheit on one 98 degree day.  A study at Brigham Young found the temperature of its synthetic turf practice field 37 degrees higher than air temperature.  Proponents argue that games can be played at cooler times – but in early autumn in Las Cruces, that’s tough.  Cooling off the field takes a significant amount of water.

Even more serious are health and injury risks.  “Turf toe” and “turf burns are familiar terms to professional football fans.

Studies, including the NFL’s, show that while the numbers of injuries are similar with both surfaces, artificial turf leads to more serious injuries and longer recovery periods.  The NFL’s Injury and Safety Panel concluded that certain serious knee and ankle injuries occur significantly more often in games played on artificial turf.

Too, at least one study showed that artificial turf increased MRSA risk.  Turf burns often lead to antibiotic-resistant skin infections.  (MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus areus.) A study of the St. Louis Rams found eight players with MRSA, all resulting from turf burn.   Three studies among Texas high school football players, conducted by the Texas Department of Health Services, also found a conneciton between artificial turf and these infections, although the studies were too small to establish a statistical link.  NFL medical liaison Elliot Pellman said, “The turf burns themselves are just the kind of minor skin injury that MRSA can exploit.”

Bernd Leinauer, a turf expert at NMSU, pointed out that artificial turf retains bodily fluids because there are no microbial communities to take care of viruses, and fields must be sanitized frequently for health reasons.  In addition, black carbon nano particles can occur in crumb rubber infill material – and some cancer experts consider these particles as dangerous as asbestos.  Tires contain benzene, formaldehyde, and other harmful substances.  Heat and use break them down into a fine dust players inhale. Each field contains tens of thousands of ground-up tires.

Leinauer also said that where water use, maintenance, and cost were key issues, natural turf should be used – in our locale, Bermudagrass.

There are reasons professional leagues have moved away from artificial turf.

In major league baseball, nearly 40% of teams once had artificial turf.  It started in 1966 with Houston’s Astrodome.  By 1970, six of 24 stadiums, including San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, had the stuff.  During the 1970's teams were ripping out natural grass to install artificial turf.   In 1982, with the installation of artificial turf in Minnesota’s new Metrodome, 10 of the 26 teams had the stuff.  Then teams started removing it.  Only Toronto and Tampa Bay still play on artificial turf.

In U.S. professional football, artificial turf remains more common, despite players’ complaints, but in the football we call soccer, artificial turf was outlawed, although there’s some talk of looking into the latest artificial-turf developments.

I hope that before this column appears the School Board will have voted down artificial turf or tabled it for careful study.

These are KIDS we’re talking about.  They have decades of life ahead of them.  Injuries are part of sports; but why increase the likelihood kids will suffer serious injury playing high school football?  Why expose them to unnecessary health risks, just because artificial turf looks neat and pretty?

[The foregoing column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 9 June, 2013.  It was written before the school board met Friday morning, but appeared after that meeting.]

        The school board meeting Friday morning was kind of pathetic.

        Few people even seemed to know the issue was under consideration.  Only two spoke: the expert quoted in the column, Bernd Lanauer, and myself.  I had earlier sent the board-members a copy of this column, along with a link to a nine-minute video anyone interested in the subject should watch.

        The board showed no interest in what Mr. Lanauer had to say.  When school officials parroted industry marketing materials, and Mr. Lanauer offered to rebut some of the inaccuracies, the board was not interested.  

        As far as I can tell, the administration never had consulted the university, even though there were some world-class experts available there.  If I understood correctly, experts here were responsible for the natural turf on which two Super Bowls were played.  Certainly an unbiased fact-finder, trying to ascertain what might work for the Las Cruces Schools, would have located the nearby university and inquired.  

        But boosters and school officials wanted artificial turf.   As one of the officials pointed out, only two districts played on natural turf last year.   Board member Maria Flores immediately noted, "But our players are winning anyway!"  I thought of parents with kids who want to drink booze or smoke or get high or get tattoos or whatever because the other kids do.  "Because the others do it" isn't necessarily a great reason.  Now the kids have the Board of Education to cite on their side.  Sometimes you have to do dumb things to save face with the majority, I guess.
        One board-member made an impassioned plea to consider the kids who'd be playing on the stuff.  Another cited both the health/injury concerns and the inordinate cost to a school system already having troubles meeting its obligations.  Both dissented during the vote.

        Of the others, two seemed uncomfortable doing what they were doing, voting for the artificial turf.  One said that while the health concerns were "not non-existent," it seemed that "being pragmatic" required the board to approve the huge expense.
        Of course, it seemed pragmatic because the school officials briefing the board had decided what they wanted to do, and didn't really investigate facts and expert opinions that didn't fit their plan.  



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