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Proposed McLean field conversion revives worries about health risks of synthetic turf

The baseball diamond at Linway Terrace Park (via Fairfax County Park Authority)

The McLean Citizens Association (MCA) wants Fairfax County to reconsider its embrace of synthetic turf for athletic fields, as a decision nears on whether to replace the grass baseball diamond at Linway Terrace Park (6246 Linway Terrace).

The organization, which represents residents of the greater McLean area, has called for a review of the county’s practices regarding synthetic turf, particularly the potential health and environmental risks posed by crumb rubber — bits of recycled tire commonly used for artificial fields.

Approved by the MCA board of directors at a meeting last Wednesday (Feb. 1), the resolution builds off a February 2018 request that the county test field drainage for possible water contamination and create a citizen task force to explore the issue.

“Looking at the issue anew this year, we learned that concerns about the environmental and health effects related to synthetic turf fields continue to be significant and in some ways have grown,” Barbara Ryan, who chairs MCA’s environmental committee, said.

The Fairfax County Park Authority announced in December that McLean Little League had offered to help fund a conversion of Linway Terrace Park’s baseball field.

Synthetic turf requires less upkeep than natural grass and can be used regardless of weather, McLean Little League board member Bryan Orme told FFXnow at the time, noting that the 10-acre park’s nearby soccer and lacrosse field has been converted.

The Fairfax County Park Authority uses a mix of sand and cryogenic crumb rubber for most of its synthetic turf fields in accordance with a countywide policy last reviewed in 2016, according to FCPA Public Information Officer Ben Boxer.

In response to community concerns about crumb rubber possibly contributing to cancer and other health issues, the county conducted “extensive review” of scientific studies in 2012 and 2015 and data from the Virginia Department of Health, then-county executive Edward Long Jr. said in a May 2016 memo.

The county determined it didn’t need to change the materials in its synthetic fields or reconvene a task force that had been created in 2012.

“No study exists that has shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with crumb rubber,” Long wrote. “The general conclusion for all the studies reviewed is that health effects are unlikely from exposure to the levels of chemicals found in synthetic turf with crumb rubber infill and that these fields do not pose a serious public health concern.”

However, athletes and health advocates have argued that existing research is limited, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies to launch a joint study in 2016.

While that study is still underway, some localities in the U.S., including Boston, D.C. and Montgomery County, have banned or limited the use of synthetic turf.

Beyond the much-debated possible health risks, MCA said it’s also concerned about the heat generated by synthetic turf fields, their limited lifespans of eight to 10 years, and the impact on the county’s waterways.

“Given the concerns cited above regarding synthetic turf fields, MCA recommends that the Environmental Quality Advisory Council (EQAC) investigate how the county is reviewing the environmental and health risks associated with the county’s current practices related to synthetic turf fields to determine if the county should…revisit its…decision that crumb rubber is an acceptable infill material,” the resolution said.

MCA also urged the county to reconvene its Synthetic Turf Task Force, implement a system to track where and how fields are disposed of, and install enhanced stormwater management at Linway Terrace if the baseball diamond conversion is approved.

Boxer says the park authority’s turf fields are designed to “drain primarily downward and have extensive underground stormwater management practices,” per county code requirements.

As stated at a Jan. 12 community meeting, the FCPA will talk to the Department of Public Works and Environmental Services about potential enhancements, though the focus will be on meeting permitting requirements “and not directed at crumb rubber,” Boxer told FFXnow.

The FCPA is accepting public comments on the Linway Terrace proposal until Sunday (Feb. 12).

As for its overall use of synthetic fields, the county isn’t planning another reevaluation — at least not until that federal study is released.

“At such time as a new EPA or CDC study on crumb rubber use on synthetic turf fields is completed, then based on the results of such Federal level studies, the County as a whole may elect to revisit current synthetic turf practices,” Boxer said.

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