Currently, the Brattleboro Union High School Board is considering a proposal to spend nearly $1.1 million on installation of synthetic turf for Natowich Field. Basically, a budget reconciles resources with values. The recent debate over the artificial turf athletic field raises quite a few value conflicts that may fall into four categories: (1) health and safety; (2) the environment; (3) fiscal priorities; and (4) education. In this first of a two-part column, we address the first two categories.
Health and safety: Beyond turf burns
We all want our students to enjoy good health and safety in our athletic programs, but it is a given that injuries will occur in almost all competitive sports, particularly high contact sports like football. We support athletics with a shared belief that the benefits derived from them -- character development, leadership development, healthy lifestyles, etc. - far outweigh the occasional twisted ankle or sprained shoulder. The conflict, however, comes when we consider the increased risks that may result from play on artificial turf rather than on natural grass.
No one would knowingly endanger the health and safety of our student athletes, but it appears that some may be willing to take a little more risk when seeking solutions to the current problems with Natowich Field, primarily a natural grass field that allows limited use by other sports teams after it is torn up in football games. Others, however, myself included, feel that the benefits of synthetic turf are not worth the risk of ACL injuries, concussions and other injuries that may have lasting effects on young bodies.
Articles on the health and safety risks of playing on artificial turf abound. The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine and the Concussion Legacy Foundation are just a couple of many professional journals which have recently exposed the risks of playing on artificial turf. Studies indicate that the risks of CTE (chronic traumatic encepphlopathy), upper body and ACL injuries are significantly higher for athletes who play on artificial turf versus natural grass.
Not surprisingly, the companies that sell artificial turf, most notably FieldTurf, a leader in the field, claim that their product is safe, but we need to ask ourselves why the U.S. Women's soccer team and other women's teams are now suing FIFA over their decision to play games on artificial turf, which the teams claim is unsafe. We need to question why nearly 90 percent of NFL players prefer natural grass to turf and why only two out of 32 major league baseball teams play on artificial turf (Fenway has nice Kentucky bluegrass, by the way).
At a recent school board meeting, proponents of synthetic fields claimed that they are becoming the norm, yet in Vermont, of the 20 union high schools and 84 high schools overall, only four have installed synthetic athletic fields — less than 5 percent is far from a "norm." What IS a rising trend, however, is the rate of concussions in some high school sports. According to the 2018 documentary, "Shocked," produced by Green Bay quarterback Bret Favre, "The rate of concussions in youth soccer doubled from 1990 to 2014 ... When you take into account that one-in-five concussions are suffered from head-to-turf impact, the playing surface begins to become a major factor in reducing the severity and repercussions of head injuries in sports." A shock pad under an artificial turf makes the field somewhat safer (albeit at greater cost for installation and maintenance), says Dr. John Sorochan, a turf grass scientist interviewed in the film, but he adds that "A natural field, well kept, is still going to be our safest option." Megan Rapinoe, captain of the U.S. Women's Soccer Team, is one of many pro athletes who would agree.
Other health and safety issues that weigh on the decision to install artificial turf include extreme heat hazard, lead exposure, zinc and other hazardous chemicals (which can also leak into our water tables), asthma (from breathing in crumbled tire particles), and skin lesions, aka "turf burns" which can lead to MRSA (staph infections) according to Lindsey Barton Straus in "Turf Wars: Pros and Cons of Artificial Turf" (momsteam.com).
The world is a dangerous place and nobody expects our student athletes to live in cocoons, but the question of grass versus plastic fields boils down a question of how much risk we are willing to take.
The environment: Grass or plastic?
If we go with plastic, we are stuck with it for decades to come. An important consideration for those who value the environment is that once an artificial field is built, it is nearly impossible to go back to natural grass. Synthetic turf will kill any living
organism in the sub-soil and require many years of soil remediation to re-grow anything on the surface. Moreover, most studies estimate that the life of a synthetic field is somewhere from 8 to 13 years. In fact, most warranties are good for only 8 years. After about a decade or so, a synthetic field — at considerable cost — would need to be replaced and tossed into landfills, assuming landfills would still accept plastic and crumbled rubber infill.
And then there are carbon emissions. One thousand, eight hundred sixty-one trees are needed to offset the carbon footprint of an artificial turf over a decade according to the Washington Toxics
Coalition ("Synthetic Turf Versus Natural Turf for Playing Fields," 2006). A synthetic field, then, would be in direct opposition to Brattleboro's goal of reducing carbon emissions and maintaining a healthy environment.
When we consider the climate emergency that we are now facing, a natural grass field is clearly the better option. A plastic rug filled with crumbled rubber is not the only answer to the problems facing Natowich Field.
Coming up next: Fiscal and educational priorities and viable alternatives.
Tim Maciel, Ed. D., is a member of Brattleboro Common Sense. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.