A Test For Testing

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Dyker Beach's fake grass is starting to wear down to rubber in the left foreground.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Dyker Beach's fake grass is starting to wear down to rubber in the left foreground.

Just weeks before the release of the literature review, New Jersey shut down two artificial-turf fields in Hoboken and Ewing due to high lead levels. Lead is known not only to harm children’s health but also to inhibit their neurological development.

Any level of lead should be considered dangerous to children, said New Jersey’s then deputy health commissioner, Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, especially considering that many kids may have been exposed to lead in other ways. “It could add to the levels already in their bodies,” he said, noting that lead had been entirely removed from products like household paint. “We probably shouldn’t expose children to any lead.”

The New Jersey fields were made of the old-fashioned, carpet-style turf, not the rubber-infill turf that New York was using. At the July 2008 opening of a shredded-tire field in Jamaica, Queens, Benepe belittled the concerns and even took credit for ordering the literature review funded by the New York Community Trust. “There are no health risks,” he said. But unbeknownst to the public, New York City had quietly started to test fields for lead. In the absence of federal guidelines, these tests used an EPA standard for acceptable lead levels in playground soil. The decade-old standard held that lead concentrations greater than 400 parts per million were dangerous.

On Nov. 24, 2008, a test was conducted at Thomas Jefferson Park in East Harlem, and the recycled-tire field flunked. The city decided to destroy the turf, which had been installed only five years before at a cost of $1.4 million.

Yet this decision was not announced for nearly a month. It came to light at the end of a business day three days before Christmas. Gotbaum felt blindsided. “I had no idea about the testing,” she said. “It had all been done under the radar. It was very sneaky.” Suddenly, Gotbaum said, the literature review looked like a delay tactic to avoid testing. “They were stalling.” She understood the fears of having to replace fields, “but you can’t have the high lead levels found in Thomas Jefferson Park,” she said.

The Parks Department announced the field had a lead reading of 500 parts per million, just above the EPA standard, but the data sheets showed 16 of 31 samples had much higher readings. One spot had a lead measurement of 1,956 parts per million—nearly four times the field’s single released reading. Nancy Clark explained the final result had been a “composite” of the 31 samples. She claimed composite testing—mixing all the samples together and then taking one measurement—was “the normal procedure” and “the best way to characterize an overall field.”

“That’s incorrect,” countered David Brown, a public health toxicologist, after reviewing the data sheets. Brown is the former head of environmental epidemiology at the Connecticut Department of Public Health, and he’s also worked at the CDC. “Look at the variability—these readings are all over the place, and half exceed the regulatory limit. You can’t average this out.”

“Composites may mask hot spots,” warns an EPA document on assessing environmental risks. That’s why Brown believes composite measurements aren’t appropriate for health questions: “If a child falls down in the hot spot, the child’s had the exposure.”

The recycled-tire material complicates the hot-spot problem. All tires are not the same: They’re manufactured for different purposes—and in different countries—and can consequently contain different chemicals or chemicals in different amounts. But when the city resumed testing 101 other fields in January 2009, far fewer samples were taken than at Thomas Jefferson Park. While the previous test measured 31 areas, the new tests combined only five samples from each field for one composite measurement. The change in methodology has never been revealed to the public.

Once the scaled-down tests were complete, the Parks Department announced the remaining fields were safe. “We are pleased that the test results found no further evidence of lead contamination,” declared Benepe, who called the destruction of the Thomas Jefferson field “an aberration.” Brown was shocked when reviewing the new data sheets, which now contained just a single reading for each field. “I could see someone making a blunder once or twice, but this is continual.”

After the closing of the field at Thomas Jefferson Park, Benepe officially confirmed what the Parks Department had repeatedly denied: The city had stopped buying the fields made from shredded tires.

Another City Council hearing was held in February 2009. Several Council members backed a bill that would not only declare a moratorium on future purchases of synthetic turf but also mandate the removal of all crumb rubber if found to be dangerous. “You wouldn’t let your child play in a junkyard,” said Queens councilman Eric Gioia.

While 12 members of the public testified at the 2007 Council hearing, 40 people signed up to speak this time. To accommodate the overflow crowd of spectators, the hearing was moved to the main City Council chambers.

Clark began by citing the Health Department’s literature review to support the Bloomberg administration’s contention that, with the exception of the field at Thomas Jefferson Park, artificial turf was safe. The review examined studies that accounted for the “special vulnerabilities” of children, she assured the Council, contradicting the criticisms of the doctors at Mount Sinai School of Medicine while appropriating the language of their letter. “In addition, the report also found that neither bacterial infections nor physical injuries were significantly related to synthetic-turf playing fields.” Exposure to the chemicals commonly found in synthetic turf was “likely to be too small through ingestion, dermal or inhalation to increase the risk of any health defect,” she said, speaking out against the moratorium bill, calling it “counterproductive.”

By now the literature review was out of date, at least on one count. In September 2008, Zhang and Crain published a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology finding that lead in the rubber crumbs could be absorbed into the body by the digestive tract. “Ingestion of the crumb infill” was also mentioned as the main route of exposure for children at Thomas Jefferson Park by Deputy Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanagh in a Jan. 14, 2009, letter to the city comptroller and corporation counsel requesting $908,420 in emergency funds to replace the field.

Zhang and Crain’s latest study did not come up at the City Council hearing. Clark and Kavanagh attributed the city’s shift in materials solely to concerns about the excessive heat. Kavanagh told Council members the city had no plans to replace the rubber pellets in its recycled-tire fields, but the material would be removed eventually as part of the turf ‘s “normal” eight- to 10-year replacement cycle.

“The source of the lead contamination at Thomas Jefferson field is not known,” insisted Clark, who nonetheless believed it was “most likely” due to “some external” source. When the field was first shut down, Benepe said, “It’s possible there’s something in the soil there.” Yet a new virgin-rubber field was going down on exactly the same spot.

Afterward, two newspaper reporters approached Clark in the hallway. When questioned about the use of composite testing, she said, “It’s standard and statistical because you want to characterize the fields as a whole.”

But aren’t you diluting higher readings?

She arched her brow. “I don’t know what you’re asking.”

Frank Lombardi, a veteran City Hall reporter for the Daily News, moved closer with his tape recorder. Clark backed away. “It doesn’t bite,” he joked, “believe me.”

Clark stammered. “I’m not comfortable to have somebody pointing a tape recorder at me.”

Lombardi apologized: “It’s to pick up your voice.”

“You want to talk to the Parks Department about all of this,” Clark said, abruptly ending the interview. “We’re not authorities on parks or materials,” she called back, as she stepped toward the stairwell out of City Hall.

At an unrelated press conference on the first floor, Bloomberg was asked about the hearing. He blasted the controversy as a “made-up story,” once again citing the problem of childhood obesity. “The real risk is not getting the kids to the park,” he said.

Public Advocate Gotbaum had asked the Parks Department to test its synthetic-turf fields in April 2007. But instead of learning whether its playing surfaces were safe, the Bloomberg administration opted to wait nearly a full year for the literature review; in that time, the city spent an estimated $40 million to install about 30 more artificial-turf fields using rubber from recycled tires.

The unfolding of these events sounded awfully familiar to Dave Palmer, then an attorney for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. He was on a committee formed by the public advocate to study the turf issue, but he’d already witnessed the Bloomberg administration’s reluctance to deal with health concerns when they threatened to hamper its pursuit of a policy goal.

Palmer was involved in a different backroom negotiation at City Hall in late 2006, representing South Bronx residents opposed to the building of four new schools on contaminated land in Mott Haven. He won a promise from the administration to fund an independent environmental assessment of the site. But just two weeks later, and four days before Christmas, the city silently resubmitted the schools plan, triggering an automatic 20-day deadline for the Council to reject the project. Palmer had a rude awakening when he returned to work after the holidays. “Why would they agree to fund our assessment and then not wait for the results?” he wondered. The city claimed the deadline was set to avoid soliciting new bids for the contract. The tests and cleanup were eventually done, but it took a lawsuit to force the city to come up with a monitoring plan to see if its approach to the contamination had worked.

“They don’t start out with evil intentions, but they mishandle the process horribly,” says Palmer. “They get so defensive: ‘You want to make sure it’s safe, and who’s going to pay for that?'”

Before Barack Obama became president, he was a sponsor of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which will lower acceptable lead levels in children’s products over a three-year period to 100 parts per million, much less than the state’s current soil standard of 400 parts per million, which was used by the city to test its artificial-turf fields.

Under this new standard, which will take effect next year, seven other artificial-turf fields in city parks would have flunked the test. These fields are at Randall’s Island, the Parade Grounds, and J.J. Walker, Forest, Eugene McCabe, Juniper Valley and St. Mary’s parks. If the city based its decision on the results of individual samples instead of composite testing, there’s a good chance many more fields would have failed.

But the new federal standard won’t apply to artificial turf. The Consumer Product Safety Commission decided not to classify turf as a children’s product after manufacturers asked for a ruling.

The health questions will now be answered by the Environmental Protection Agency, which released its own “limited field monitoring study” in December 2009. Air and wipe samples at four locations found lead and chemical concentrations to be below levels considered harmful, but the EPA noted this study was not large enough to be conclusive. Last month the agency held a closed-door meeting in New York City, bringing together federal and state officials to share information and to discuss whether additional research is needed. An EPA spokesman would not comment on the results of that meeting. The CPSC has yet to decide.

Turf was not mentioned by name in the current federal law, but that didn’t stand in the way of California creating its own standard. In 2008 that state sued three athletic-field manufacturers, including FieldTurf Tarkett, for having “knowingly and intentionally exposed” kids to lead. The three firms have now settled the lawsuit, agreeing to reformulate their products to reduce lead levels to 50 parts per million.

Under California’s new standard—the nation’s first enforceable limit on lead in artificial turf—New York City would have had to shut a total of 24 fields in parks alone.

Though many doctors believe no amount of lead is safe for kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended a maximum of 40 parts per million in children’s products. When the group issued that opinion, it also set new low standards for other metals and chemicals commonly found in turf, including cadmium and arsenic. Under the AAP’s standard for lead, the city’s composite tests would have forced the closure of 33 park fields.

Today New York City parks have 120 infill fields, all but eight using the crumb rubber from recycled tires; 11 fields are nylon carpets. The Parks Department currently plans to install at least 23 more carpets and 19 fields using alternative materials as infill; it has not yet decided what to use for nine other planned fields. The alternative materials include virgin rubber, sand coated with plastic or acrylic paint, and ground-up walnut shells. The Department of Education— which has 47 shredded-tire fields and 31 carpets—will use an alternative infill of polyethylene foam and sand.

In June, Bloomberg signed a bill that requires the Parks and Health departments to work together on vetting these new materials before they go into playing fields. Officials from both agencies had lobbied against the law. An advisory committee will be formed to monitor materials. The panel’s opinions are nonbinding, though its findings will be posted online. Turf manufacturers are now required by the Parks Department to test for lead, chromium and zinc, but not any of the other chemicals that have caused health concerns.

The city has previously shown a reluctance to enforce standards over time. Its only safety test for artificial turf— the Gmax rating—measures a field’s ability to absorb impact, which is crucial to avoiding concussions and other severe injuries. Yet six months after installation, the Parks Department no longer requires a field to be tested for its Gmax rating, a disturbing fact because Gmax readings change over time. As artificial turf ages—and infill material scatters and dissipates—fields break down, and the public may be exposed to the possibility of severe injuries on untested fields.

Without regular maintenance and inspections, the integrity of the playing surface is at risk. A monitoring system had once been established at the Parks Department, but this was abandoned, according to an agency spokesperson.