Sunday, March 27, 2011

Artificial Turf Health Hazards Questioned Again In NYC Parks

J. J. Walker Field - Manhattan. The field at James J.Walker Park (bordered by Hudson, Clarkson, Carmine and St. Luke’s Place) was tested for lead on January 8, 2009 and registered 240 ppm — but the city is only now getting around to removing it. Its replacement, in the design phase, will cost $1.6 million. The field is heavily used by Little leagues. (Photos By Geoffrey Croft/NYC Park Advocates) Click on images to enlarge.

Chelsea Now has a front page 2,000 plus word article on the controversy surrounding health issues involving artificial turf, entitled, City parks: Paradise, paved over, hazardous to health? The City is spending millions of dollars to replace three Chelsea fields. The City continues to misrepresent heath and safety issues to elected officials, community boards, and stake holders like little leagues, when questioned about artificial turf safety. The article includes a number of embarrassing misrepresentations made by a Bloomberg administration Parks Department official.

“All turf fields were tested in 2009, and elevated lead levels were NOT found in the fields,” Philip Abramson, DPR spokesperson stressed. But a look at the Parks Department’s own website — which lists lead levels in city parks in all five boroughs — shows that many park surfaces come close to or exceed the new 100 ppm standard established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in November 2008.

The article comes on the heals of an artificial turf expose published in City Limits which recently won an Ippie Award for Best Investigative Story of 2010 for its in-depth examination of how New York City became the world's largest buyer of fake grass. - Geoffrey Croft


It is finally time for those pale, winter-weary bodies to get in shape at one of the city’s 800 athletic fields. But if you’re expecting “natural” to be part of nature, wake up and smell the artificial turf. Paradise has been paved over — and some of it may be hazardous to your health.

Misled about lead

In December 2008, the NYC Health Department tested and found elevated lead levels in the crumb rubber infill material at Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem — 502 ppm (parts per million, equivalent to milligrams per kilogram) — four times greater than allowed in soil. They closed down the field, which has since been replaced. The field at James J.Walker Park (bordered by Hudson, Clarkson, Carmine and St. Luke’s Place) was tested for lead on January 8, 2009 and registered 240 ppm — but the city is only now getting around to removing it. Its replacement, in the design phase, will cost $1.6 million.

Chelsea Park Field - Manhattan. Installed in 1998 for $1.3 million, the
Astroturf-style nylon-carpet field in Chelsea Park on West 27th Street and 10th Avenue was the Parks Department's first artificial turf field. Its replacement, slated to open sometime this spring, is a 50,000-square-foot state-of-the-art field made from synthetic rubber. It is calculated to cost between $1.9 and $2.3 million, almost double the original amount.

“These fields are only being replaced because of their age and due to wear and tear, said Philip Abramson, a spokesperson for the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. “All turf fields were tested in 2009, and elevated lead levels were NOT found in the fields,” he stressed. But a look at the Parks Department’s own website — which lists lead levels in city parks in all five boroughs — shows that many park surfaces come close to or exceed the new 100 ppm standard established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in November 2008.

“The city did a composite test, which is problematic because this method hides hot spots,” stated Geoffrey Croft, head of the watchdog group NYC Park Advocates. For most of the fields and play areas, the method was a composite sample of crumb rubber collected from five areas within each field or play area, which were then analyzed for lead. They took individual tests in Thomas Jefferson Park, the way it’s supposed to be done, and it was shut down.

“One hundred million pounds of recycled tires have been dumped into our park system. They’ve taken out natural turf to put in this petroleum-based plastic in our fields,” said Croft. “Over 49 chemicals are in these fields, including some that are carcinogenic, and they never did a single test before the material was put in, in addition to spending hundreds of million of dollars on it. We finally forced the city to test in 2009 — ten years after they began installing the product — and that’s when they found those high lead levels.

“There is no doctor in the world that will tell you that exposure to any level of lead is acceptable. The city wants to hide the fact that they never did any tests,” Croft added.

According to the Parks Department website, there are 136 athletic fields across the city that are composed of synthetic turf material (99 crumb rubber infill, made from recycled ground-up car and truck tires; 19 alternative material infill and 16 carpet-style. In addition to the playing fields, there are 19 small play areas (15 crumb rubber infill and four carpet-style), often within playgrounds that are made of synthetic turf.

Lead was first discovered in an Astroturf field in Newark, N.J., in fall 2007 — the same material used in Chelsea Park. It was found to have up to ten times the amount of lead that is allowed in soil. A Parks Department source, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that discovery alerted the agency to potential problems. But Abramson said, “moving forward,” the city is indeed mandating that contractors comply with the new 100 ppm lead levels. “Contractors must submit heavy metal test results for both fibers and infill prior to a field’s installation. We no longer install infill made out of crumb rubber from recycled tires. Newer technologies have emerged, which have replaced it. They include alternative infills, like virgin rubber, elastomer coated sand, acrylic-coated sand, thermoplastic elastomer and coconut fiber,” he said.

Chelsea Waterside Park at 23rd Street. Under Construction - Fall 2010. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn allocated $ 500,000 as part of the field's replacement. The field is part of Hudson River Park.

The Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) manages Chelsea Waterside Park at 23rd Street. Their new synthetic field, put in three months ago, cost $279,000. But adding in the cost of the new perimeter fence raises the expenditure to $876,150. Council Speaker Christine Quinn provided $500,000 of the funding in the FY2010 capital budget. “The field was replaced due to the conditions of the turf, which was ripped up, had holes in it and had to be patched with Duct tape instead of turf,” said HRPT spokesperson, David Katz, Vice President, Marketing & Events, in an email.

“We are aware of the health and environmental concerns about certain artificial turf products that have been raised and discussed publicly over the last few years and have been tracking the issue closely. This includes monitoring product reports and independent studies, including one conducted by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation on artificial turf’s use in New York City. We also conducted tests on existing fields in the park. Nothing in the research or findings has persuaded us to discontinue selected use of artificial turf in the park because of health or safety concerns. Hudson River Park has been using artificial turf at the fields at Chelsea Waterside and Pier 40 since 1999,” Katz stated.

A handful of City Council members introduced a bill in 2008 (though the hearing was in 2009) to seek the banning of crumb rubber and crumb rubber infill on surfaces used for recreational purposes, but it did not pass because it faced a lot of opposition, not only from the Parks Department, but also from athletic groups and others who came to testify, a City Council source told Chelsea Now.

In September 2008, California’s state attorney general sued three artificial turf manufacturers for violating the state’s Proposition 65 environmental law “by knowingly failing to disclose that their products contain lead,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “Children and other individuals can ingest harmful levels of lead by absorbing it through the skin or by rubbing the ersatz grass and then touching food or their mouths, the suit contends…Although artificial turf presents little or no danger when it is new, lead levels rise to potentially harmful levels as it gets forms more dust…and could contain levels of lead that are more than 20 times what’s allowed by Proposition 65,” the deputy attorney general stated.

New York State has not enacted any artificial turf legislation that would require testing or disclosing to the public that a product contains lead. One of the three companies named in the lawsuit was FieldTurf USA Inc. of Florida, the company that put down the turf at Chelsea Waterside Park. “We are aware that this is one of the brands that was previously sued,” said Katz, “but FieldTurf agreed to eliminate lead from their products, among other changes.”

Feel the heat — and other hazards

Another danger posed by artificial turf is the heat it generates. In July 2010, NYC Park Advocates took temperature readings at a dozen city parks before noon. Artificial turf fields measured over 170 degrees, the highest temperature recorded in three years of monitoring. By 9:15am, the temperature had risen to over 140 degrees. “Young children are particularly susceptible as it can take only two seconds to burn on solid surfaces greater than 140 degrees, according to doctors,” said Croft. “Exposure to artificial turf can lead to blisters, dehydration, nausea and heat stroke, which can lead to death.”

In addition to the burn risk, in February 2009 then Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum testified before the Committee on Parks and Recreation Hearing on Artificial Turf that it could potentially contribute to the urban heat island effect. “The heat gets trapped in there,” said Croft. “Grass runs about 70 to 80 degrees cooler, it’s natural, creates oxygen, cleans the air and absorbs water.” Croft recently debated a spokesperson for the synthetic turf council on NY1, and the man admitted that the fields are “only hot on sunny, cloudless days.”

The Parks Department has issued a heat advisory on its website, instructing field staff about potential heat-related risks involving synthetic turf, “including overheating and dehydration.” Parks has posted signs at all synthetic turf fields cautioning the public about heat-related illnesses and is using a number of alternative infill materials that retain less heat than crumb rubber, acknowledged Abramson. The City Council passed a local law in 2009 that requires signs to be posted in parks that warn of the heat dangers. But there was a feeling at the time from advocates that the language wasn’t strong enough, the City Council source said.

“We have also installed water ‘misters’ near the benches of fields that might get particularly hot in an effort to allow players to cool down more easily, and we continue to look for ways to reduce the summertime temperatures on synthetic turf fields,” said Abramson. “It is important to note that playing on an asphalt lot would present the same heat-related concerns.”

Another concern, noted Gotbaum, is that because synthetic turf does not absorb water like natural turf, it increases storm water run-off, which “may also carry toxic elements picked up from the turf into our sewers and waterways,” she said.

Chelsea Now asked Abramson what happens to discarded turf — is it dumped into landfill or rivers — but his answer was succinct and only related to Chelsea Park. “The field at Chelsea that was removed was made out of carpet — not crumb rubber — and it was removed by our contractor as construction debris,” he replied.

July 11. 2010. Falling Apart - Brooklyn, NY. Throwing Good Money After Bad. Despite investing hundreds of millions of dollars in artificial turf - like natural turf fields - the City has no maintenance plan, or money for upkeep. Some fields are falling apart after only a few years.

Wear, tear and maintenance

One of the primary reasons the city has been laying down synthetic turf is its alleged durability and low maintenance. Said Abramson, “A synthetic turf field is expected to last eight to ten years, whereas a heavily used natural grass field wears down quicker without adequate rest, reseeding and extensive care. Synthetic turf fields are typically utilized for about 3,000 hours of play per year, with no rest required, the equivalent of three to four well-maintained natural turf fields. In addition, synthetic turf maintenance costs are two to three times less than natural turf, since no mowing, irrigation or chemicals are needed.”

The Parks Department calculates the annual cost for the upkeep of one grass athletic field as $14,000, including equipment and staffing — although there has never been any evidence to support that figure, reported City Limits. For instance, the Central Park Conservancy, a public-private partnership, hasn’t replaced the grass fields of the Great Lawn since it was renovated over 12 years ago.

The Parks Department source told Chelsea Now that the synthetic turf “has a lot of failings,” lasts five to seven years “and then starts to unravel and deteriorate in different ways.” City Limits did a random survey of 56 artificial fields last summer and discovered 25, or 46%, “in serious state of disrepair, with gaps, tears and holes forming obvious hazards.” The Parks source said the Parks Department knows all of this. “We have tried to tell them since 2004.” In fact, an internal Parks Department memo from 2006 reported that inspected turf installed only three to five years before “displayed problems” and “defects ranging from disintegrating fibers and carpet wrinkling to shredded seams and playing lines ripped out completely.”

The source continued, “Fiscally, it’s problematic because when it starts to deteriorate, it’s capital money to put down a new carpet and the old, plastic carpet goes to landfill. It’s a better playing surface than asphalt fields, but it wasn’t good for replacing natural turf or passive use areas.”

But now, the city is beginning to use artificial turf in passive areas as well, i.e., where people lounge to take in the sun. “There is even less justification than for athletic fields. They no longer use crumb rubber, but there is still the heat issue, and we don’t always know what is in the material they are putting down,” the City Council source stated. Legislation is currently pending to ban the use of artificial turf in passive areas, sponsored by Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes Thomas Jefferson Park.

Croft posits that the city refuses to allocate maintenance dollars to take care of fields. “It’s called recapitalization of parks. You fix it up, watch it disintegrate over the years and then need to spend money again. The public needs to demand accountability of these elected officials. They are just allocating without asking questions.”

To date, according to Croft, only three fields that have registered lead levels have been replaced — Thomas Jefferson, J.J. Walker and Chelsea Park. “The city has not exactly rushed to fix the problem,” he stated. “And we are not even talking about all those schoolyards and playgrounds. It’s irresponsible.”

Read More:

Chelsea Now - March 23, 2011 - By Bonnie Rosenstock

A Walk in The Park - March 25, 2011 - By Geoffrey Croft

A Walk In The Park - November 15, 2010

A Walk In The Park - July 17, 2011 - By Geoffrey Croft

A Walk In The Park - July 7, 2010 - By Geoffrey Croft

A Walk In The Park - July 4, 2010

A Walk In The Park - April 4, 2010

A Walk In The Park - March 6, 2010

A Walk In The Park - January 18, 2010

A Walk In The Park - November 24, 2009


  1. It's no secret that Adrian Benepe is a pathological liar. That is well documented. He has no dignity and knows extremely well he works for a mayor that is not interested in accountability.  The artificial turf issue is unfortunately just one example of many which the public is paying —literally— for this man's lack of self-worth and dignity.

    Watching him at these City Council hearings is a perfect example of his contempt for the City.  He sits there smirking and lying at will. He knows the elected officials will chastise him in these hearings but will not do anything to demand accountability. Sad.

    Another sad part is watching all these other park employees having to stand behind this guy. Its really embarrassing.

    And the best part is Adrian blames everybody but himself for his woes.

  2. toxic turf. and it costs more. makes no sense.