On a bright autumn afternoon at Lincoln Park in Lexington, an older couple walked on a trail strewn with fallen leaves, a toddler squealed as her mother pushed her high on a swing, and a group of middle schoolers kicked around a soccer ball on the synthetic turf playing field. A kid tripped and tumbled, casually brushing some black dust off his knee as he stood back up.
That black dust comes from the crumb rubber that provides infill and cushioning beneath the bright green blades of the plastic turf.
“Anybody who has played on these fields knows that there are these little pieces that end up in your car, on your clothes — everywhere,” said Cindy Arens, a Lexington parent and chair of the Sustainable Lexington Committee.
Crumb rubber is made of old tires, and can contain toxic chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals including lead. The green plastic blades and their backing material have been shown to contain per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — a group of chemicals often referred to as “forever chemicals” that have been linked to reproductive problems, endocrine disruption, and certain cancers. On a hot day, when athletes are breathing hard, they can smell the chemical mix. A scraped knee or face plant onto the turf might mean bits of the crumb rubber in the wound or mouth.
The risks associated with synthetic turf have become evident enough that last year Mayor Wu stopped new artificial turf from being installed in Boston parks. Smaller towns from Connecticut to California have banned synthetic turf, and in August there was a hearing for Bill H.3948, which would prohibit “state and municipal contracts for the purchase and installation of artificial turf fields” in Massachusetts.
A synthetic field is expected to last about 10 years, after which it will most likely end up in an incinerator or a landfill, and the turf at Lincoln Park, which was installed in 2015, is reaching the end of its life. Back in March, Town Meeting voted to replace it with new synthetic turf as part of a $3.4 million plan for renovations at the park. The decision was not without controversy. Several Town Meeting members voiced concerns about PFAS and other toxins, and an amendment was brought forward suggesting that the synthetic turf be replaced with real grass.
But others, including both Town Meeting members and high school athletes, made a very compelling counterpoint — soggy New England fields aren’t usable much of the time and our town doesn’t have enough sports fields to meet demand as is. To some, the physical and mental health benefits of exercise outweigh the more remote risks associated with PFAS exposure. Then there is the problem of the landfill — the site was used to store the town’s waste until the 1960s, and some worry that planting natural grass on top of an old garbage heap could pose its own engineering and ecological challenges.
At the March meeting, Recreation Committee Vice Chair Christian Boutwell said that bidders on the renovation project would be required to provide certification that the new turf is PFAS free. But critics aren’t sure that PFAS-free synthetic turf even exists. There are thousands of PFAS chemicals; the most common test only looks for six of them. The nearby city of Portsmouth, NH paid $3.5 million for a synthetic turf field that the manufacturer said was PFAS free, but after residents raised concerns, the city did its own independent testing for 70 different types of PFAS and found trace amounts of more than a dozen different PFAS chemicals.
The plan also required that the materials be recyclable. But despite manufacturers’ claims, plastic turf is extremely difficult to recycle. Separating the crumb rubber from the tiny plastic blades and other materials is hard, and the market for the components is extremely limited.
“It’s really greenwashing by the plastics industry to say they have ways to recycle this stuff,” said Town Meeting Member Jeanne Kreiger. One of the few companies that claims to recycle the material has in fact been letting it pile up in fields and parking lots in Pennsylvania. In Franklin, MA, a pile of artificial turf was left a few feet from wetlands that are connected to the town’s drinking water supply.
Despite the concerns, Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly in favor of the renovations. But a working group, including members of the Recreation Committee, Sustainable Lexington, the Board of Health and others, continued to meet over the summer to further develop the specifications for resurfacing the field.
On Wednesday, the group presented a memo to the Recreation Committee outlining its suggestions for a way forward that would “meet needs of both athletes and health and sustainability concerns,” said Director of Recreation and Community Programs Melissa Battite.
The memo calls for testing not just for the six types of PFAS currently regulated in Massachusetts, but for total organofluorines (a more inclusive way to test for PFAS) and metals. “Artificial turf [all the components] is manufactured in such a way that fluorinated chemicals, including PFAS, are integral to the process,” the memo acknowledges. The memo doesn’t specify a threshold for PFAS levels.
“PFAS is everywhere,” Arens said. “We’re going to start with just knowing what’s really there.”
The working group also hopes to be more transparent about recycling.
“There is no recycling of these fields right now, and we don’t have any evidence that there will be.” Arens said. “We don’t want that in the specifications, because there is no way to do that right now.”
Instead, the plan calls for the contractor to provide a “full, detailed accounting of the fate of the removed turf materials,” and says that incineration and so called “advanced recycling” or “chemical recycling” — a process in which heat or chemicals are used to break down used plastics into separate chemical components for reuse — is not allowed.
“They can’t claim they are going to recycle it if they are not, and they can’t incinerate it,” Arens explained. “The best thing is to not create plastic that you can’t dispose of. The least bad solution right now is to put it in a well-lined and well-capped landfill.”
As for the crumb rubber, the group learned of a product called Brockfill, an organic infill made from wood particles that provides a similar spongy cushion. The specifications will call for Brockfill or a similar product to be used instead of old tires.
“It’s a little more susceptible to freezing than crumb rubber,” Boutwell said. “That’s a known potential reduction in operations compared to crumb rubber.”
But Boutwell said he was happy with the process and results of the working group.
“I was really impressed with everyone’s willingness to put in the hard work to get past that defensiveness, their preconceived notions,” Boutwell said. “I think it was a really great example of collaborative effort towards a compromise solution.”
“When we first came together, it was clear that there were two sides to this,” said Rick DeAngelis, the chair of the Recreation Committee. “We decided, as a group of individuals, to pause and not talk so much, but listen,” he said. “That enabled us to come together with a plan which benefits everybody.”
The specifications developed by the working group will be shared with bidders for the job in January, and work on a new, improved synthetic turf field is expected to begin in June.