The use of synthetic turf at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School has been debated for years, and discovery of a toxic chemical in some artificial fields is likely to renew the debate.
After much public input, MVRHS plans to install a synthetic turf infield inside a resurfaced track, along with five natural grass athletic fields.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were found in several test samples taken from synthetic turf by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Ecology Center.
Although PFAS can be found in many modern-day items such as food packaging, nonstick cookware, and waterproof clothing, the chemicals have been reported by the Environmental Protection Agency to cause adverse health effects with long-term exposure.
Since November 2018, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport has been working to remediate PFAS contamination found in drinking water in private wells near the airport. The suspected culprit is firefighting foam used to put out aircraft fires. Carbon filters have been installed at some homes with elevated levels of PFAS.
In PEER’s press release, which sparked much of the reporting on the emerging PFAS issue in synthetic fields, it is stated that eight different turf samples (including Shaw and Turf Factory Direct) indicated grass fibers contained moderate to high levels of fluorine, suggesting the presence of PFAS.
PEER also said it found turf patents and industry literature naming PFAS as a plastic processing aid to enhance smoothness and reduce friction.
That’s drawn new attention to the decision by MVRHS to use a synthetic field for its main playing surface at the high school. The current grass playing fields at the high school have been deemed inadequate by some coaches and student athletes, including longtime Football Coach Donald Herman. In August, the school committee hired Huntress Associates to build a new field that incorporates a synthetic surface, saying it’s the best way to meet the demands put on the high school’s fields by the sports program.
Members of the Field Fund have been longtime advocates for all-grass fields on-Island, and have been staunchly opposed to the installation of synthetic turf at the high school.
Because the high school is situated on the Island’s sole-source aquifer, particular attention was paid by the track and field designer, Huntress Associates, to mitigate any chemicals draining into the aquifer from stormwater runoff.
The proposed track and field project is also within a Zone II wellhead protection area, as classified by MassDEP. These zones are important for protecting the recharge area around public water supply groundwater sources.
In a press release, the Field Fund said it hopes “these latest scientific findings will compel the MVRHS leadership to revise their plans to exclude plastic fields.”
In an email statement, Field Fund co-founder Rebekah Thomson said recent scientific studies give new weight to the organization’s concerns regarding the human and environmental health impacts of plastic fields.
But Chris Huntress of Huntress Associates told The Times that as soon as he learned that PFAS chemicals were found in some turf fields, he contacted several manufacturers that are being looked at for the project at the high school.
“We haven’t secured any one particular vendor; the project still needs to be put out to bid,” Huntress said.
He reached out to Greenfields USA, Shaw Sports Turf, and Act Global to see if any of their products contain PFAS or related long-chain compounds. Each company told Huntress none of their synthetic grass carpets contain PFAS.
“All this is happening in real time — it’s an ongoing process to vet these suppliers and make sure the materials are safe and of the highest quality,” Huntress said.
Huntress referenced a Boston Globe article on PFAS being found in synthetic fields. He said the article describes the majority of PFAS being found in artificial turf backing, but the turf Huntress is recommending for the Vineyard wouldn’t use backing.
“Our turf would be woven, and not tufted with a backing, so that would eliminate the issue of the backing, where PFAS was found,” Huntress said.
He said the main reason the high school is going with woven materials is because they are easier to recycle.
Among other concerns commonly raised over crumb-rubber infills found in some artificial fields, Huntress said his team is looking at alternative infill products that are entirely organic.
“I can guarantee you there is no PFAS, and the infill will not be crumb rubber,” Huntress said. “We are just as concerned about the health and well-being of young athletes as those on the Vineyard. Our kids play on these types of fields too.”
High school athletic director Mark McCarthy said he is confident in Huntress Associates and their ability to choose the right product for the Island community. “Huntress really knows all our concerns down to each detail. We know he is going to lead us in the right direction and put in fields that are safe for everybody,” McCarthy said.
MVRHS school committee chair Kimberly Kirk said “we are looking forward to working with Huntress Associates to complete a facility that is safe and healthy for our Island environment and community.”
Thomson referenced reporting in the Intercept that stated Shaw Industries was one of the companies that had their samples test positive for high levels of fluorine — an indicator of PFAS.
A spokeswoman for Shaw, Susan Farris, is quoted in the Boston Globe article saying, “These chemicals are commonly used by synthetic turf manufacturers as a nonstick agent in the manufacturing equipment.”
According to the Globe, Farris said the company has since phased out use of PFAS, and is using new formulations to perform the same functions as the chemicals historically have. Farris is quoted saying, “Shaw has shifted to new ingredients.”
Although Shaw and some other turf manufacturers have said to have discontinued their use of PFAS after recent studies, Thomson said it is unclear whether these large companies are being transparent and forthcoming about the presence of harmful chemicals in their products.
“There are thousands of PFAS chemicals that we don’t even have tests for,” Thomson said. “These chemicals are largely unstudied, but what we do know is alarming.”
Thomson said large turf manufacturers have been disingenuous in the past, and wondered at what point the general public starts questioning whether these companies are being truthful and holding the safety of the public in mind.
“We [the Field Fund] don’t trust this industry. I really worry about the lack of disclosure about these chemicals,” Thomson said.