A natural playing field is better

To the Editor:

This letter was submitted to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) committee regarding the current proposal by MV@Play to upgrade the athletic facilities on the high school campus. While much of it is wonderfully designed, the plan needs tweaking before it is approved.

My husband Joshua has worked in the professional soccer world for the past 16 years, and as coaches of our children’s soccer teams and college athletes ourselves, we understand intense competition and the desire to offer our student athletes good training facilities. And as the daughter of the late Susan Parker, former chairman of the MVRHS school committee, I appreciate the intense budgetary challenges the school faces. However, none of that justifies the use of artificial turf, particularly with crumb rubber infill, here or anywhere.

While Gale Associates have put together a compelling case for artificial turf, this says more about their skills as salespeople than it does about the potential impact on the health of our Island. However, the fact that they are proposing the use of crumb rubber, banned in New York State back in 2008, undermines their credibility on this subject. The research conducted thus far is admittedly insufficient. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokeswoman Laura Allen stated recently that existing studies by federal, state, and local government agencies “were not designed, nor were they sufficient in size or scope, to draw conclusions about the safety of all fields across the nation. They cannot fully answer questions about what if any potential risks might be posed from exposure.”

That said, a 2015 study by Yale University found 96 chemicals in 14 samples of infill used in synthetic turf and rubber tire mulch. Twenty percent are probable carcinogens, 40 percent are irritants, and 24 percent are respiratory irritants. “This study should give pause to all those schools, towns, and government agencies that have told the public these fields are safe,” said Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health.

In a tragic parallel, the Boston Fire Department stated, regarding their efforts to ban flame-retardant chemicals in light of elevated cancer risk, “We shouldn’t be the canary in the coal mine. The burden of proof should be on an industry that stands to make billions of dollars off these chemicals — not on the public or firefighters.”

Similarly, it is appalling that our children should be used as part of an incredibly irresponsible nationwide health experiment in which they are knowingly exposed to so many toxins. It is our job as their parents, educators, coaches, and community members to protect them from known hazards, “not wait for definitive evidence of harm.” Children, in particular, are more susceptible to environmental hazards because of their developing organ systems, immature detoxification mechanisms, and many years in which to develop disease.

If risk to our children’s health isn’t sufficient reason to avoid artificial turf and crumb rubber, the impact of leaching into the Island’s aquifer should be. The high school is located above the geographical center of our sole-source aquifer. In storm-water runoff, zinc, lead, and volatile organic compounds pose a risk to surface waters, aquatic organisms, and potentially soil and groundwater as well. Further, to avoid the spread of bacterial infections such as staph, artificial turf needs to be routinely sprayed with antimicrobial chemicals. Surely this is not good.

Given how environmentally conscious the Island community is striving to be, from healthy school lunches to plastic bag bans and so much more, it seems clear that we should be talking about how to best maintain natural grass fields using greener options, not investing millions in potentially toxic, synthetic carpets which pose health risks to our children, environment, and aquifer, and present a huge solid-waste problem every time they need replacement. On an Island rich with innovators, environmentalists, sports fans, and donors, I am confident we can build on MV@Play’s ambitious plans to make them truly great.

Rebekah Thomson

West Tisbury