Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange Sports

OPINION: The Case for Fixing Our Fields

Despite the fact that third-generation turf has been tested for over 20 years, and that South Orange-Maplewood School District has a turf field in place since 2007, there are too many myths and misperceptions about the value and safety of synthetic turf.

Too many of the myths are based on primitive types of surfaces and infill which has a legacy of unfounded safety issues that have been debunked by more than 100 scientific studies across the globe. The studies have come out of industry, global sport organizations, university institutions, and anecdotal information from the more than 13,500 recreational facilities built around the country.

As our Board of Education moves to vote on replacing the artificial surface at Underhill and construction of multi-sport facilities, including artificial surface, at Ritzer, it is imperative that our neighbors understand the wealth of information that directly addresses carry-over concerns related to safety, environment, water conservation, heat, and costs.

As a community, we have a truly rare opportunity to reimagine two of our recreation facilities – Ritzer and Underhill fields – to benefit every Columbia High School student taking PE, every band member, every athlete, and every community member. Here are the most persistent concerns and the truth behind the claims.

Why Can’t We Just Improve the Grass?

It is not possible to adequately improve or maintain natural grass fields to meet the demand South Orange and Maplewood has for field space. Natural grass needs continual repair and replacement to keep the surface playable as well as “down time” to allow repairs to take hold. Bad weather, be it rain, snow or excessive heat, damages the surface requiring extra maintenance. High impact play, particularly on a field that is subject to bad weather, causes even more damage.

Our high school students – from PE classes to marching band to sports teams – had severely limited access to our existing natural grass fields and youth teams were denied any access in order to protect the fields.

Additionally, both during and after rain or snow, these fields were often closed. Many teams were bused to neighboring schools, at a significant cost to the Athletic Department, to hold games or practices on artificial turf. Improving the natural grass field will not change this situation. Artificial turf is the only solution that provides adequate access for the number of teams and athletes we have, both at the high school, and in the community.

Years of Neglect

The issues with Underhill and Ritzer are not new to our community of BOE. Dating back as far as 2000, with both fields in terrible shape and the BOE unwilling/unable to prioritize these outdoor classrooms for upgrades, the Columbia High School Alumni Association stepped in and addressed the issues directly. With a campaign called “Ever upward” they set about raising $1.7M to have Underhill Field and the surrounding track resurfaced.

“The school board passed a resolution approving the fundraising campaign by CHSAA to renovate Underhill and Ritzer Fields. CHSAA hired Kinsey Associates, Park and Recreation Consultants to create a Conceptual Master Renovation Plan for Ritzer and Underhill Fields. The master plan, completed in May 2007, includes field configurations, recommended surfaces (natural or artificial turf), and cost estimates for the entire project. Renovations to the track and football field at Underhill have been selected for Phase I of the project with an estimated cost of $1.7 million. Phase I improvements include artificial turf on the football field that can accommodate football, soccer and lacrosse, a new track and field event venues, and state-of-the-art-lighting around the football field. Phase I is scheduled to be completed by September 1, 2008, contingent on successful fundraising. Upon successful completion of Phase I, fundraising will continue for the balance of the renovations at Underhill and Ritzer Fields.”[i]

The work on Underhill was completed in 2008, with lights added in late 2013.[ii] And, any remaining funds from the Underhill project were turned over the BOE for future use on Ritzer upgrades.

Fast forward almost a dozen years and our recent Superintendent, Dr. Ficarra, summer it up best when he said in August 2017 – shortly after he started working for our District – “[We] have outdated and inadequate facilities … to decaying facilities at the Schools which have been neglected for decades.”[iii] While with us just two years, he identified two major problems that the current bond under consideration is designed to address: “overcrowding and decades of neglect.”[iv]

This theme of neglect is best seen through two lenses: the past 10 years of SOMSD approved budgets or a physical inspection of the fields at Ritzer and Underhill (see photos in appendix). Over the course of the past decade, our Board of Education has either deprioritized or omitted budget considerations for the routine upkeep at Underhill and Ritzer.[v]

The costs

Due to the great potential of artificial turf for the development of football and other sports, synthetic surfaces are used in many areas of the world. Its resistance to weather and ability to sustain more intensive use make it the best alternative to natural grass.[vi]

Natural grass simply cannot remain lush and resilient if used more than three to four days a week, in snow or drought, or during months when grass doesn’t grow. This, coupled with an escalating need for durable fields that accommodate multiple teams and activities, the high cost of maintaining a grass sports field or landscape, and the need to conserve water, have prompted a rising number of schools, parks and municipalities to turn to synthetic turf to meet their needs.[vii]

There are numerous studies available that estimate the cost difference between installing and maintaining a natural grass field vs a synthetic turf field. The results vary widely depending on the source. A report presented in March 2016 by the Loudon County (VA) Public Schools Division of Construction Services compared the cost of fields using six different infills to the cost of natural grass. The report shows that, over 24 years, the cost of a turf field that uses Envirofill is only 13% more than the cost of natural grass. We believe the value of the increased playing time that we will have with an artificial turf field far outweighs this cost difference.

The benefits of synthetic playing fields are numerous, and include greater equity among users, year-round playability, playability in bad weather, decreased maintenance, and no pesticides. They also have a low cost to use threshold: factoring use versus cost for each type of field reveals a savings difference of almost $300 per playing hour ($348/hour for grass compared to $53/hour for synthetic).

The increased availability and lower maintenance costs directly translate into a whole lot more band practices, physical education classes, youth league games, and other activities for the health and benefit of our students.

Better Longevity, Less Maintenance

Economics cannot be taken out of anything. Athletics – from Physical Education classes to Marching Band practices to Lacrosse Games – is a costly affair; when unpredictable climatic conditions or the nature of the soil prevent scheduled matches and practices form happening or cut them short, the students and athletes lose. The players lack training and practice. This is not a scenario our district would encourage.

Synthetic turf does not pose any such problems. The grass is always going to be just right, the surface flat and smooth. Play life is going to be much longer. The durability and climatic resistance of synthetic turf is extensively tested in the laboratory. You can use it all the time with very little maintenance. No mowing, cutting, edging and all of that. Besides, natural grass fields are bound to wear and tear.

The restoring of a grass field takes a lot of time, effort and money. It works out as a costly affair. Synthetic pitches on the other hand, despite long and excessive use, give a good return on investment and prove profitable.

Artificial Turf and Grass are Equally Safe

A study, conducted by the F-Marc team (FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Centre) which included feedback from players, team coaches and medical studies revealed artificial turf is as safe for players as natural grass.

  • The main findings of these two studies were that there were no major differences in either the risk or the cause of training or match injuries on artificial turf and grass in both male and female football players. Neither did the severity nor the causes of injury differ significantly on artificial turf and grass in both genders. In both match and training the most common injury location on artificial turf and grass was the lower limb in both men and women.[viii]
  • From the matches at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru, the F-Marc team (FIFA Medical Assessment and Research Centre) concluded that there was no significant difference in number and type of injuries which were reported to previous U-17 tournaments.[ix],[x]

Studies conducted by the NCAA involving 1,000 players from American college and university soccer teams, reinforced these findings:

  • The main findings of these two studies were that there were no major differences in either the risk or the cause of training or match injuries on artificial turf and grass in both male and female football players. Neither did the severity nor the causes of injury differ significantly on artificial turf and grass in both genders. In both match and training the most common injury location on artificial turf and grass was the lower limb in both men and women.[xi],[xii]

Additional studies into player safety include:

  • Patellar tendinitis is a relatively mild but common condition among elite soccer players, and the recurrence rate is high. This study investigated the epidemiology of patellar tendinitis in 2,229 elite male soccer players from 51 European elite soccer clubs playing on natural grass and synthetic turf between 2001 and 2009. Objective: To compare the risk for acute injuries between natural grass and artificial turf in male professional football.

Conclusion: “Exposure to artificial turf did not increase the prevalence or incidence of injury.”[xiii]


Thanks to the significant, engineering advances that have taken place in the last 50 years (since the first artificial turf fields were installed), today’s fields should be considered as fully contained, multi-layered, infiltration ecosystems.

Current requirements for such field surfaces rely on infiltration through the field surface materials and stone layers and is ultimately collected by perforated circular drains embedded in buried stone-filled trenches in a herringbone pattern. In some cases, flat drains at the bottom of the base stone are used instead of the trenches. The field drains are connected to a collector drain located around the perimeter of the field that discharges into the site storm drainage system. In addition, slot or trench drainage is sometimes used to collect surface water at the perimeter of the field.[xiv]

Stormwater runoff is handled via storm drain inlets exposed to the ground surface (i.e., catch basins or trench/ slot drains).

This means, regardless of elevation of Ritzer and Underhill, groundwater will not be a problem. Additionally, based on a study from the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection:

  • The DEP suggests that use of stormwater treatment measures, such as stormwater treatment wetlands, wet ponds, infiltration structures, compost filters, sand filters and biofiltration structures, may reduce the concentrations of zinc in the stormwater runoff from artificial turf fields to levels below the acute aquatic toxicity criteria.[xv]

Additionally, no concerns with water runoff have ever been raised on turf fields that don’t contain crumb rubber – something the MAPSO Recreation Field Task Force is championing.  Runoff from parking lots and natural grass with their weed killer and fertilizer are more of a concern; no chemicals will be used on our turf fields.

  • According to Catherine Hamilton, DEP Drinking Water Program/Boston, “DEP does not identify artificial turf to be a threat to drinking water quality.”[xvi]
  • A study commissioned to study the potential water quality impacts of the synthetic turf field at Tabor Academy in Marion, MA, determined “…stormwater runoff from the athletic field is not a source of pollutants/contaminants that would pose a threat to the harbor.”[xvii]

Controlling for Heat

A synthetic turf playing surface consists of two main components, the plastic turf fibers and the bulk infill. Most of the heat absorbed on the field is a direct result of the sun’s radiation. The amount of heat generated is directly proportional to the density and quantity of the material absorbing this radiation. Heavier crumb rubber, plastic and sand filled fields absorb no moisture and generate the most heat.

In contract, organic and porous materials absorb more than 100% of its weight in moisture from natural humidity, precipitation or irrigation providing grass-like turf field temperatures. A typical football sized artificial surface can naturally store up to 30,000 gallons of water, a tremendous advantage with regards to environmental water management while providing long-term cooling through evaporation.

Simply put, upgrading the synthetic surface at Underhill and installing synthetic turf as a multi-activity space at Ritzer is the best long-term option for students, for band, for sport, and for South Orange-Maplewood.

What the Studies Say About Crumb Rubber

Over the years, numerous organizations have investigated crumb rubber’s potential health and environmental risks. Studies have examined several factors, such as how crumb rubber affects the human body when it is ingested or when athletes’ skin comes in contact with the crumbs. Other research has considered whether crumb rubber releases harmful levels of chemicals into the air.

  • A 2013 study by researchers at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey evaluated opportunities for exposure to trace metals, semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) from crumb rubber infill and the artificial turf fiber “grass.” The researchers found that PAHs were routinely below detection limits, and SVOCs that have environmental regulatory limits were at levels too low to quantify. Some metals were detected, but researchers said the concentrations were low and likely would not cause health problems.[xviii]
  • A May 2008 literature review by TRC for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene evaluated 11 previously conducted human health risk assessments of crumb rubber in artificial turf. Each assessment looked at different crumb rubber constituent materials, but “all had a similar conclusion: exposure to [chemicals of concern] may occur, however the degree of exposure is likely to be too small through ingestion, dermal [contact], or inhalation to increase the risk for any health effect.”[xix]
  • In 2009, four Connecticut state agencies (University of Connecticut Health Center, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Environmental Protection) evaluated the health and environmental impacts associated with crumb rubber turf fields in Connecticut. Researchers looked at four outdoor fields and one indoor field, asking three soccer players at each field to wear personal monitoring devices to collect samples. The study tested about 200 chemicals at each field. Researchers concluded that there were no elevated health risks from playing on the indoor and outdoor fields, but they noted that indoor fields may need ventilation because of higher levels of chemicals at the one indoor field they tested.[xx],[xxi],[xxii]
  • In 2013, ChemRisk in Pittsburgh conducted a literature review for the Rubber Manufacturers Association to evaluate the health and ecological risks associated with the use of recycled tire rubber on playgrounds and athletic fields. While some of the ingredients used in tire manufacturing are considered to be “potentially hazardous to human health at high doses, the potential for athlete or child exposure to these chemicals is very low” when playing on a synthetic turf field, the study says. It notes that heating during the tire manufacturing process causes physical and chemical reactions that bond potentially harmful chemicals into the material, and “the process is designed so the release of chemicals into the environment is inhibited.”[xxiii]

Infill Choices Matter

While not at a decision point, the MAPSO Recreation Field Task Force will champion the use of environmentally friendly and organic materials such as clinoptilolite zeolite (a non-toxic mineral) or coated sand infill.

[i]        Columbia High School Alumni Association. Campaign for Field Renovations. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[ii]       School Upgrades, Renovations Continue for New Year. Patch. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[iii]      SOMSD Board of Education Minutes from August 21, 2017 meeting. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[iv]       “South Orange-Maplewood Must Address ‘Decades of Neglect’ of Facilities.’ Village Green, November 12, 2017. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[v]        SOMSD. 2019-2010 Preliminary Budget. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[vi]       FIFA Quality Programme for Football Turf. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[vii]      Benefits of Synthetic Turf vs. Natural Grass. Act Global. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[viii]     Risk of Injury on Artificial Turf. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[ix]       Fuller CW, Junge A, Dvorak J. Risk Management: FIFA’s approach for protecting the health of football players. Br J Sports Med 2012; 46: 11-17. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[x]        Federation International Football Association. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[xi]       Fuller CW, Dick RW, Corlette J, Schmalz R (2007). Comparison of the incidence, nature and cause of injuries sustained on grass and new generation artificial turf by male and female football players. Part 1: match injuries. British Journal of Sports Medicine 41(Suppl I): i20-i26.

[xii]      Fuller CW, Dick RW, Corlette J, Schmalz R (2007). Comparison of the incidence, nature and cause of injuries sustained on grass and new generation artificial turf by male and female football players. Part 2: training injuries. British Journal of Sports Medicine 41(Suppl I): i27-i32.

[xiii]     Hagglund M, Zwerver J, Ekstrand J. Epidemiology of Patellar Tendinopathy in Elite Male Soccer Players. American Journal of Sports Medicine, June 2011, 0363546511408877. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[xiv]     “Drainage of artificial turf fields.” Civil and Structural Engineer. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[xv]      Artificial Turf Study. 2010., Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[xvi]     Wellhead Protection Guidance. Department of Environmental Protection. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[xvii] Synthetic Turf Athletic Field Evaluation, CDM Smith (construction and engineering firm). 2014. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[xviii]   Pavilonis BT, Weisel CP, Buckly B, Lioy PJ. “Bioaccessibility and Risk Exposure to Metals and SVOCs in Artificial Turf Field Fill Materials and Fibers.” Risk Anal 2014 Jan;34(1):44-55. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

[xix]     Anderson SE, Meade BJ. “Potential Health Effects Associated with Dermal Exposure to Occupational Chemicals.” Environ Health Insights 2014;8(Suppl 1):51-62.

[xx]      Simcox NJ, Bracker A, et al. Synthetic Turf Field Investigation in Connecticut. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A: Current Issues, 74:17, 1133-1149. 2011.

[xxi]     Ginsberg G, Toal B, et al. Human Health Risk Assessment of Synthetic Turf Fields Based Upon Investigation of Five Fields in Connecticut, Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A: Current Issues, 74:17, 1150-1174. 2011.

[xxii]    Ginsberg G, Toal B, et al. Benzothiazole Toxicity Assessment in Support of Synthetic Turf Field Human Health Risk Assessment. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A: Current Issues, 74:17, 1175-1183. 2011.

[xxiii]   Review of the Human Health & Ecological Safety of Exposure to Recycled Tire Rubber found at Playgrounds and Synthetic Turf Fields. Cardno ChemRisk. 2013. Last accessed June 12, 2019.

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