On a recent cold afternoon at the Parade Grounds in Brooklyn, half of the fields were bright green and alive with the sounds of play. The high ping of an aluminum baseball bat making contact with the ball mixed with shouting in Spanish as a nearby soccer game grew intense.
The other half was closed off, barren and gray-brown.
One of these fallow fields was supposed to have been covered in synthetic turf, like the livelier half of the Parade Grounds were.
But it hasn’t, and in all likelihood won’t be anytime soon.
The city decided to discontinue the installation of synthetic turf made with the crumb rubber infill after a similar field in Harlem tested unsafe for lead. There also were numerous complaints that the crumb rubber grows hot enough to burn bare feet on sunny summer days.
So now what?
Patrick Pierre, 17, a high school junior, said that having year-round access to a soccer field trumped a grass pitch.
“If people want to play, they should be allowed to,” he said.
No one wants to bring back asphalt, whose main virtue is its frugality. When the time comes to replace the rubber, some want to lay down synthetic fields made of organic material. Grass is still an option, though it’s expensive to maintain and must be closed all winter.
Mayor Bloomberg has characterized the synthetic turf scare as “a made-up issue,” and some experts say that testing seems to back his position.
Peter Abramson, a spokesman for the Department of Parks and Recreation, wrote in an e-mail message, “We are exploring all newer, appropriate technologies, including carpet-style turf on flat surfaces, and alternative infill materials including sand or crushed nut shells,” to eventually replace the old crumb rubber.
In early 2006, New Yorkers 4 Parks, a non-profit advocacy group, published a study that questioned whether the Parks Department was replacing natural fields too fast and with insufficient study of the possible effects associated with artificial turf. The intense heat of crumb rubber infill and the possible health issues of utilizing recycled tires were among the issues raised in the report.
Now City Councilman Bill DeBlasio (D-Brooklyn), whose district includes the Parade Grounds and Prospect Park, where the Vanderbilt Playground was recently renovated with crumb rubber, is sponsoring legislation to have new signs warning of heat risk.
“Protecting children must be our top priority. We should thoroughly test synthetic turf in parks citywide to discover if they present any threat. Turf that is revealed to be toxic should be removed immediately,” he said in a statement.
“Nothing of Great Concern”
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting studies, and preliminary results show that “there is nothing of great concern,” said Dr. Mark Maddaloni, a toxicologist with the agency. Maddaloni said the lead exposure was likely the result of lead phosphate used to color the synthetic blades, not the underlying rubber surface.
“Nothing is zero risk,” he said, but with a dustbowl or concrete as other options, “there is a complex risk-benefit equation here.”
That equation is made more complex by cost. Synthetic fields cost twice much to install as grass but last longer, need less attention and are open year-round. The city estimates that it saves an average of almost $15,000 a year per artificial field.
New Track For Tires
Fields made from organic compounds cost up to ten percent more to install than those made of rubber, which eliminates most of the savings compared to a grass surface.
Crumb rubber is also a useful second life for tires. Ken Winters’ family has owned Rubber Recovery in Azusa, CA for three generations. The company recycles tires for a variety of uses, including rubber pellets for synthetic fields in Southern California. He said that none of his employees or family has become sick as a result of exposure to rubber.
“If tires were toxic, I don’t think we’d be seeing life expectancy going up,” he said. “This is America, tires are everywhere. They get shaved down by driving into parts that are microns in size. There’s rubber in the air. The only major issue of crumb rubber is that in direct sunlight it gets very hot.”
That’s not a major issue for Carlos Mejia, who uses the mossy green Parade Grounds soccer field almost every day. Mejia, a 22-year-old construction worker originally from Colombia, said the resiliency of the turf and its year-round availability were more important than preserving nature.
“I think this is better than real grass,” he said.
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