Parents raise health concerns about turf fields planned for Edmonds School District campus

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A sign alerting passersby to the changes planned for the playfields at Old Woodway High School.
A sign alerting passersby to the changes planned for the playfields at Old Woodway High School. Edmonds Heights K-12 classrooms are located at the left in the photo. The Edmonds School District plans to replace the grass baseball field directly above the sign with two turf fields later this spring. Two more fields could be installed at the north end of campus, if additional funding is acquired.

The Edmonds School District has scheduled two community meetings next week to address health and environmental concerns raised by some parents about a plan to install artificial turf fields at the former Woodway High School, part of a multi-use “health and wellness campus” project involving the school district, the City of Edmonds and the Verdant Health Commission.

Potential concerns surrounding the planned turf fields —  in particular, recent news reports suggested a possible link between recycled tires used in the field turf and cancer — were raised last week by Maggie Pinson, a registered nurse whose 13-year-old son attends Edmonds Heights K-12 School, located directly adjacent to the fields in question. (Edmonds Heights — which serves home-schooled students district-wide — shares the former Woodway High School building, off 100th Avenue West in Edmonds’ Westgate neighborhood, with Scriber Lake High School and several other district programs.)

““It is abundantly clear that rubber tires contain heavy metals and it is equally clear that heavy metals are toxic to humans (especially young children and pregnant women),” Pinson said in an email to My Edmonds News earlier this week. “Lead seems especially common in tires, and cadmium is sometimes identified in a sample of rubber crumbs.”

Erin Zackey, who teaches math and science at Edmonds Heights, said she has both health and environmental concerns related to the artificial turf, since her classroom is located directly next to the proposed turf fields and her 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter play soccer. Among her worries: “the off gassing of these fields, the impact on our ecosystem (I frequently teach outdoors), the impact to ground water, the hazardous materials found in these fields for players.”

“I think our local residents should absolutely get the chance to weigh in on their feelings about it all,” Zackey said.

According to school district officials, planning for the Woodway fields renovation has been underway for 10 years, and voters approved $500,000 in seed money for the project in 2008 through the district’s Technology/Capital levy. The project gained momentum when additional funding was acquired, including a $2.5 million grant from the Verdant Health Commission. The City of Edmonds is scheduled to provide maintenance and operations support under a pending agreement, said City Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Carrie Hite.

The schematic for the Woodway athletic fields.
The schematic for the planned Woodway athletic fields.

The project’s first phase, at a total cost of $4.18 million, involves the installation of two turf fields at the south end of campus, the current location of the baseball field, said Ed Peters, director of the Edmonds School District’s Capital Projects Office. The multi-purpose fields would be used for soccer, lacrosse, softball and Little League baseball, and would include a walking path. The second phase would include installing two more turf fields at the north end, replacing the current football-size field that is now surrounded by a walking/running track. In phase three, outdoor lighting, a storage facility, concession stands and toilets would be added. The district does not yet have the funding to complete the second and third phases of the project.

Phase 1 construction is set to begin at the end of May, but before that happens the district needs approval from the City of Edmonds Hearing Examiner for requested variances related to fence heights and lighting. That hearing is scheduled for Thursday, March 26 at 3 p.m. in City Council Chambers, and is open to the public.

The required signage notifying the public of that hearing, which was installed next to the field as well as at the school’s entrance on 100th Avenue West, is what captured the attention of Pinson and other Edmonds Heights parents, who began sending letters to district and city officials.

Fueling parents’ worries is the widely circulated NBC News investigative report from October 2014,  which was later picked up by other news outlets, questioning whether there was a connection between crumb rubber artificial turf and cancer — in particular lymphoma and leukemia — among American soccer players, especially goalkeepers who have more contact with the turf. (The news report, interestingly, was based out of Seattle, as an associate University of Washington women’s soccer team coach was the first to begin tracking the connection.)

The NBC report, which you can read here, included the following statement:

“NBC’s own extensive investigation, which included a review of the relevant studies and interviews with scientists and industry professionals, was unable to find any agreement over whether crumb turf had ill effects on young athletes, or even whether the product had been sufficiently tested.”

And along those lines, in response to parents’ concerns, the district posted on its Capital Projects web page a Power Point presentation noting that more than 60 technical studies and reports have been conducted to review the health effects of crumb rubber “pertaining to a host of circumstances or conditions — including cancer.”

“Scientific research from academic, federal and state government organizations has unequivocally failed to find any link between synthetic turf and cancer, as acknowledged by NBC in their report.” the district presentation added.

Also included on the district web page was a Jan. 22, 2015 letter from the Connecticut Department of Public Health summarizing research the department had conducted on artificial turf fields, which also concluded that “outdoor artificial turf fields do not represent an elevated health risk.”

There are currently seven turf fields in use across the Edmonds School District, and all of them have the recycled tire crumb mix. “We have been using fields of this nature for a number of years – at least a decade – and this is the first time we’ve been hearing this concern,” said Edmonds School District spokeswoman DJ Jakala. However, Jakala stressed that the district wants to hear from the community during next week’s meetings before commenting further, adding: “We want to gather more information from those who are concerned before we would take a position.”

Those meetings are scheduled at Edmonds Heights K-12, 23200 100th Ave. W., from 1-2 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, in the library and from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 18, in the gym. All comments collected during the meetings will be shared with the school district’s board of directors, Jakala said.

Pinson, a board-certified nurse practitioner who spent five years as an oncology nurse treating cancer patients, said she brought up her concerns about the potential health effects of artificial turf during issue the school’s monthly community forum, held last week.

“The sad thing is that once people have been exposed to toxic materials, then the harm has already been done,” Pinson said. “The evil genie is out of the bottle. Once the genie gets out, you really can’t put it back.”

The Woodway campus project was designed collaboratively with local community groups, including youth sports teams that for years have struggled to find an adequate number of playing fields to accommodate their activities, especially in the evening. The plan is to eventually light the fields for nighttime use, although that is not yet funded, Peters said.

The currently all-grass fields were originally installed for use by students at Woodway High School. Woodway was closed when Woodway and Edmonds high schools merged in 1990 to become the district’s current Edmonds-Woodway High School at 212th Street Southwest and 76th Avenue West.

Peters noted that school districts have embraced artificial turf for a variety of reasons, but “durability is probably the key issue.” A grass field “wears out very quickly,” he said. “You have to be very restrictive about how many games and how many different teams and how many different games you play on it.” With grass fields, you get “about 40 to 50 uses per year, which is less than one a week,” he added. “If you use the field more than once a week the turf dies, the sod is actually damaged and you have then take the field out of operation or go in and dig out all the turf and put new turf in.”

Turf also drains better than grass, allowing year-round use even in rainy weather, he said. In addition, grass fields “require a lot of maintenance,” including installation of a sprinkler system and fertilization, which introduces chemicals into the playing service and into the groundwater, Peters said.

District officials haven’t ruled out the possibility of another option, and that is purchasing turf using “Nike Grind” material — essentially ground-up sneakers from a Nike-sponsored shoe recycling program — rather than the recycled tire crumb mixture. After the news reports were released last October, Kennedy High School in Burien announced its decision to switch to the Nike Grind turf for its new football field.

That option will be included in a report to the school board when it votes to award a contract for the turf purchase, likely to be on the board’s May 12 meeting agenda. The Nike Grind turf would cost an estimated $100,000 to $150,000 more than the tire crumb turf, noted Matt Finch, the district’s project manager for capital projects.

“The [school] board is cleary very interested in this matter and we will be sharing information with them,” Peters said. “Given this level of concern we wouldn’t move forward, of course, without an understanding from them.”

— By Teresa Wippel

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