Will the Witness For Synthetic Turf Please Take the Stand?

Last month I brought you news of Michael Shively, professional “expert” on sex trafficking and staunch foe of decriminalizing sex work. He took the mic at Burlington and Montpelier City Council meetings, delivered his spiel, and got quite a bit of coverage in the media. More than he deserved. His credentials went unquestioned in press coverage. In truth, he represents an organization that sprung out of the religious right and has fought not only sex trafficking but also pornography, sex toys and birth control.

Well, now we’ve got another professional expert whose credentials should not be accepted at face value. Meet Laura Green, PhD., who has represented the synthetic turf industry and developers of synthetic turf athletic fields on numerous occasions. Her take is that synthetic turf is not at all harmful. It’s just a bunch of inert ingredients, nothing to see here, please move along.

Green does have solid credentials in the field of toxicology, but she has been a paid expert on only one side of the synthetic turf issue. Many experts and environmentalists do not agree with her view. Truth is, the necessary research on the safety of turf has yet to be done. It’s an open question.

Green recently paid a digital visit to Vermont, specifically the board of Mount Anthony Union High School down Bennington way. The board has proposed covering a dilapidated field with synthetic turf. Green spoke at a special meeting about the plan on October 25. Her expertise was taken pretty much at face value by trustees and the local press. (The Bennington Banner both-sidesed the hearing, which is always the shortest route to fake objectivity.)

Before proceeding any further, I should note that the plan has been derailed, at least for now. On November 3 district voters rejected the proposal, most likely over its cost. School officials are deciding what to do next; the field needs attention one way or another. Synthetic turf remains an option.

Back to the witness for Big Turf.

“There’s lots of testing that’s been done on these,” Green told the Mount Anthony board, “and the testing shows that the synthetic turf, for example, is a quite inert material. It’s sort of ordinary polyethylene, probably the most common plastic certainly in the world.”

That is far from the consensus view. The Ecology Center (in my old stomping grounds of Ann Arbor) tested eight samples of fake grass, and all of them contained toxic PFAS chemicals. There’s also concern about ground-up recycled tire bits that are strewn into the turf to make it bouncier. Tires contain known carcinogens. In 2015 NBC News aired a story about the tire bits that included this chilling line: “Those tiny black dots that get into eyes, ears and even mouths are ground-up car and truck tires…” Yeah, this stuff:

Then there’s the work of Amy Griffin, associate head women’s soccer coach at the University of Washington and a former USWNT goalkeeper. For several years, she’s been compiling a list of former athletes who (1) played on synthetic turf and (2) went on to contract cancer. Many died at young ages as a result. As of May 2020, the list contained 268 names. Given how many students play soccer or other field sports, 268 isn’t enough to prove anything. But it does give you pause, and Griffin is a staunch opponent of synthetic fields.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission used to vouch for the safety of synthetic turf, but it took back that guidance in 2015. Its new position was that more research needed to be done. So far, that hasn’t happened. (The government’s basis for initially clearing the turf was a 2009 study that included four synthetic fields. Not exactly a robust sample size.)

The Ecology Center’s Jeff Gearhart has acknowledged the lack of proof that synthetic fields are dangerous, but cites “the substantial unknowns in the scientific community surrounding the chemicals, their impacts, how they breakdown and their life cycles.”

There are also questions about the ultimate disposal of these fields, which have a lifetime of 10-15 years. The industry says the material can be safely recycled, but apparently there is no facility in the U.S. that can do the job.

It’s extra ironic that this potentially hazardous turf is under consideration at Bennington’s high school, given the troubles over PFOA contamination in groundwater. (PFOA is a member of the PFAS chemical family.) You’d think the community would err on the side of caution.

Anyway, keep in mind the name Laura Green, PhD. The Vermont Legislature may be taking up PFAS-related bills in the 2022 session. If she appears on witness lists, remember where she stands on synthetic turf and where her bread is buttered.

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