The issue of synthetic turf appears deceptively simple. With such a high demand for recreational open space throughout our city and a rising obesity epidemic, who would not want to facilitate greater use of our athletic fields? However, the debate over the proliferation of synthetic turf in our public parks is far more complicated than it appears at first glance. In evaluating these surface materials, policymakers must balance the health, environmental and safety implications of this surface material with community members’ desire for reliable, all-weather recreational space.

Synthetic turf has generated significant public and media attention in recent years, which has served to highlight a number of the dangers that have come along with its expanded usage on play fields. One synthetic turf field here in New York City, Jefferson Park in East Harlem, was closed by the City due to elevated levels of lead found on the ground; a number of these fields in New Jersey have also been closed for the same reason. An increase in the number of severe burns endured by children playing on the fields prompted the New York City Department of Health to commission a report, which indicated that excessive temperatures do occur on synthetic turf fields. Aside from the severe burns, synthetic turf also presents risks for other athletic injuries. It has been widely reported that New York Giants wide receiver Domenik Hixon severely injured his knee in a non-contact injury at the New Meadowlands Stadium that may have been caused by the synthetic turf field that was installed. After many concerns were raised about the environmental risks posed by the usage of crumb rubber infill from recycled tires, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation announced that they were no longer going to install this type of turf in the City’s parks.

Despite these concerns, the Parks Department has continued to install synthetic turf on athletic fields throughout the five boroughs, and has even begun to do so on passive areas intended for relaxation. However, a recent study by the group New Yorkers for Parks found that many of these fields have quickly gone into disrepair. At a time when the City’s resources are limited, this study calls into question whether or not our public dollars are being invested wisely when spent on these artificial surface materials that clearly carry risks to New York City residents using our athletic fields.

As a result of these myriad issues, it has become readily apparent that we must take a cautious approach with the issue of synthetic turf, one that ensures that in cases where synthetic turf is to be used, that the scientific and health communities are looking at these materials and evaluating their safety and effectiveness.

Along these lines, I have been proud to have been the lead sponsor of Int. 123-A (now Local Law 19 of 2010), which was passed unanimously by the City Council and signed into law by the mayor. This law will require two things: first, it will require that the Department of Health be consulted on decisions related to the installation of synthetic turf fields and all new surface materials that have not been previously used in New York City parks. Second, it requires the formation of an advisory committee that will meet over the next three years, and give input and recommend new technologies for synthetic turf fields and other surface materials. This advisory committee will be made up of individuals from a number of areas of expertise, from health professionals to users of the athletic fields. Up until now, there has been little formal consultation between the Parks Department and stakeholders prior to the installation of synthetic turf fields. This law will ensure that there will be a deliberate and careful approach prior to the installation of synthetic turf fields.

As we continue to strive to increase physical activity and access to open space, particularly among our youth, operational athletic fields are important parts of this battle. However, these athletic fields must be safe and must not adversely impact the health of those using them. I feel confident that with a cautious, proactive approach, we can accomplish both of these goals.

View Our September 2010 Magazine Issue.