– by Marlene Cummings –
At Vancouver’s Trillium Park, just a short walk west from the calming vegetable plots, trees and wildflowers of Strathcona and Cottonwood Community Gardens, stand two fenced-off sports fields covered with synthetic turf. They were installed eight years ago despite objections from concerned neighbourhood residents. Like all synthetic playing fields in Vancouver, users require a permit, removing these community common goods from general public use. The rate charged to non-profit youth organizations is $26.12/hour compared to $2.02/hour for a natural turf or gravel field, making fees for playing on synthetic fields likely too expensive for some families.
But exclusivity is just one questionable aspect of synthetic turf. On the edges of the two playing fields, one notices black particles blending into the grass at the edge of the asphalt walkways. On closer inspection, they turn out to be crumbs of scrap tire rubber, two or three millimeters in size. They have been carried off the field by feet, wind and rain. The natural grass growing close to the Trillium Park playing field shows signs of deterioration due to turf particles that have migrated beyond the field fence. On the west side of the field, crumb debris can be found clustered in mounds up to 18 inches wide and four inches deep.
The rubber crumbs are meant to provide traction on the field and keep the blades of plastic grass separated and upright. Some 100 tons of the material are poured and raked onto a synthetic turf field to emulate the way real grass grows straight and strong towards the sun. Despite the annual practice of topping them up, the rubber crumbs only partially meet their objective: the plastic grass looks flat like a worn shag-pile carpet.
To prolong the life of the artificial playing surface, food and drinks are prohibited on the turf. Shoe scrubbers installed at the Trillium playing field, meant to clean footwear before entering the field, are located above stormwater drains clearly labeled “leads to fish habitat – do not pollute”. Nevertheless, tire crumbs and plastic grass blades from the field can be seen on and around the drains waiting for the next rain to wash them down. During rains or turf-washing, the compounds and metals in crumb rubber – which include traces of phenols, lead, cadmium and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – can leach out and flow across the synthetic surface, into groundwater, and into stormwater drains that, in turn, empty into local waterways. More information is needed about the impacts to the aquatic and sediment-dwelling life in the streams and ocean.
If you’ve ever watched a soccer game played on artificial turf, you can see black rubber particles ping off in all directions from the players’ feet. Vancouver Coastal Health says there are no serious health risks from playing on synthetic turf, yet they have long known that hazardous materials are present in the turf materials. Recent lab tests by Total Safety Service lab in Burnaby confirmed the presence of lead in samples of crumb rubber and plastic blades from the Trillium Park field and VanTech Secondary School’s playing field. The lab report noted that even at low levels, if the tire crumb is abraded (for example, scuffed during a soccer or field hockey match) it can produce dust containing trace amounts of lead that can be inhaled or ingested. Any amount of lead in the blood risks harmful neurological, behavioural and developmental impacts. In a letter to the Park Board last April, Dr. Bruce Lanphear of SFU and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, urged Commissioners to put a moratorium on synthetic turf installation because of the presence of lead alone.
Clearly, players need to be concerned about protecting themselves. In a November 2015 CBC interview, Vancouver Coastal Health advised against getting the small tire crumbs inside open wounds, or in eyes or mouths. Anyone playing on the fields would need to shake out their socks and shoes, have a shower, wash their hands, and clean any wounds. A 2015 report from Toronto Public Health recommends “providing shoe/equipment cleaning areas before exiting the field…to avoiding tracking infill material into the school or home”.
On hot days, synthetic playing fields radiate mirage-like heat waves. The huge areas of green plastic and black rubber can reach temperatures of over 60°C under the blazing summer sun, creating a localized heat island that can increase sunburn, dehydration and heatstroke. Players can inhale volatile compounds released by the high temperatures into the air above the turf.
Artificial turf also produces plastic pollution. According to North Western Europe’s KIMO Municipalities for Sustainable Seas, up to ten percent of the plastic grass fibres in synthetic turf annually degrade into microplastics through wear and tear. Again, rain can eventually carry these particles down storm drains and into marine habitat where they are consumed by fish and shellfish. In marine organisms, microplastics can lead to reduced nutritional uptake, damaged organs, and impaired reproduction. Working their way up the food chain, microplastics enter our bodies, the repercussions of which we are only beginning to understand.
Where does all this material go when a synthetic playing field inevitably comes to its unnatural end? Park Board staff confirm that after a synthetic field’s average eight-year lifespan, the crumb rubber and plastic grass would likely be deposited in a landfill.
There are about a dozen synthetic turf fields in Vancouver, which represents a lot of rubber and plastic waste. The Park Board has plans to install another at Sir Winston Churchill School and are looking at other public sport fields like Clinton Park, despite strong neighbourhood pushback.
None of this fits with Vancouver’s ambition to be the Greenest City, or with the overarching need to protect the environment and deal with the climate emergency. There are climate impacts to consider: synthetic turf is a Lifecycle GHG Emitter of 108.2 tons CO2 equivalent over 10 years compared to a grass sport field that acts like a carbon sink to remove and store 16.9 tons CO2 equivalent over the same period. In addition, living grass can remove pollutants from the air, cool the playing surface and air above, and filter rainwater, all of which help in the fight against climate change.
Over the past decade or so, several waves of protest by concerned residents and parents have been dampened by health and administrative authorities who have repeatedly said that the toxic chemicals in synthetic turf pose no danger. Most municipalities have continued installing synthetic turf despite the lack of data on risks through the exposure pathways of ingestion, skin contact, inhalation, and leachate. Nevertheless, more studies are being published on the risks to human and environmental health from exposure to synthetic turf plastic and recycled crumb rubber infill materials. We need to hit the pause button on synthetic turf, now.
The Vancouver Park Board must embrace new scientific evidence and safeguard our City’s common land. This should start with the Park Board putting a moratorium on new synthetic turf installations, and immediate remediation of existing crumb rubber sport fields. The Park Board also needs to shift the mandate of the Advisory Committee from planning the next synthetic field to planning for truly green and healthy sport fields and parks – and in collaboration with concerned residents.
Marlene Cummings holds an MSc in Environmental Planning and is a member of the Clinton Neighbourhood Committee in Vancouver. For more information, go to: saveourplayingfields.com. To support efforts to keep Vancouver’s public sport fields and parks healthy and accessible for all, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Let the Vancouver Park Board Commissioners know you do not want synthetic turf in public parks, sport fields, or schoolyards. Email them at PBcommissioners@vancouver.ca or call 604-257-8439 to make an appointment with a Commissioner to share your concerns..