As open space continues to be developed and metropolitan areas creep ever outward from big cities, there is a lot of talk about “smart growth.” Land management is a key component of this “smart growth” process; planning where development should or should not go, working to integrate public transportation into those plans, and adopting policies that promote walkable town centers, bicycle-friendly neighborhoods and recreational areas are all part of creating livable communities.
But there are also important public health concerns impacted by land management decisions, and as scientists and medical professionals identify possible environmental health risks, municipal officials and planners are beginning to reexamine long-standing policies and popular assumptions. Here are two of those issues.
The growing use of synthetic turf fields
The increasing demand for sports field access by student athletes and community sports teams is pushing many communities to abandon their natural grass playing fields and make the switch to synthetic turf. These turf fields have the advantage of practically year-round 24/7 playtime, but they come with significant financial, environmental and public health concerns that require serious consideration.
First, these multi-million dollar fields, manufactured from tons of plastic and ground-up rubber vehicle tires, are replacing natural grass fields, which are living ecosystems capable of sequestering carbon in their biomass, recharging and filtering rainwater and pollutants and cooling ambient temperatures. The biology of a natural grass field can process and render harmless the body fluids that result from athletic play while synthetic fields need to be regularly disinfected with pesticides.
To cushion the synthetic turf field, rubber from recycled tires — “crumb rubber” — is used to infill spaces between plastic grass blades. Heavy metals and chemical toxins, including known carcinogens, are ubiquitous in recycled tires, and over time, rain and snowmelt can carry these toxins into the surrounding environment. A greater concern is that dust and tiny particles from the crumb rubber can be inhaled deep into the lungs of young athletes, resulting in a potential health hazard for life.
If you’ve ever looked at an aerial photo of a synthetic turf field, you’ll notice that the field is mostly black. That’s because the crumb rubber, which absorbs, rather than reflects sunlight, causes synthetic turf field surfaces to reach temperatures of 180 degrees Fahrenheit or higher on hot days. This can create unsafe playing conditions, limit field availability and require large amounts of water and special equipment to cool playing surfaces.
And finally, there is just no way a giant football field of plastic and toxic rubber can be responsibly recycled. Old fields need to be cut up and transported to landfills that will accept them, and the cost can be significant. The result? Up to a hundred tons of nonbiodegradable toxic material added to the environmental legacy we leave behind.
Grass fields, even those in the poorest condition, can be rehabilitated into lush, sturdy and resilient fields for a fraction of the cost of a synthetic turf field. Municipalities thinking of replacing natural grass fields with synthetic turf fields should consider all factors in their decision, including not only the astronomical financial cost, but the potential environmental and human health impacts as well.
Using chemical pesticides on municipal property
It’s important to remember that up until the 1950s, all the parks, estates and sports fields in the world were maintained without any chemical pesticides. Municipal property managers understood soil biology and used proven horticultural methods to discourage weeds and to grow grass. Those principles haven’t changed.
Relentless marketing by pesticide companies has created the impression that using their toxic products is the only way to ensure a green lawn. Unfortunately, chemicals typically found in lawn care products, such as 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, one of two chemicals that made up the infamous defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, have been associated with increased risks of cancer, neurological problems and birh defects.
Lawsuits over Agent Orange have not stopped pesticide and fertilizer manufacturers from continuing to use this dangerous chemical in their products, and powerful industry interests have prevented government agencies from banning them.
Many localities also use products such as Roundup to control weeds. Most scientists believe that the widespread use of the chemical glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is responsible for the global decline in pollinator populations. The recent multi-million dollar court decision against Monsanto for injury caused by Roundup is convincing many municipalities to consider alternative methods of dealing with weeds.
Recent advances in product technology and biological research, as well as a resurgence in time-tested horticultural practices such as high mowing, over-seeding and aeration, have made natural or “organic” landscaping the preferred method of maintaining fields. Once developed and properly implemented, a natural turf program actually costs significantly less than a chemical program, has far fewer pest infestation problems and is virtually indistinguishable from its nonorganic competition.
Synthetic turf and chemical pesticides are just two of the issues covered in a new online program called “How Green is My Town?” Fifty questions, based on criteria originally developed by the Department of the Interior and updated with the latest emerging science from public health experts around the world, provide not only a helpful checklist for every municipality that aspires to be truly green, but links to government programs, sample policies and financial incentives that can help achieve real, sustainable outcomes.