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Concerns about Loudoun County’s turf fields—both health and financial—return

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After the Board of Supervisors authorized staff to accept bids for crumb rubber infill (CRI) synthetic turf fields following a study finding no correlation between CRI and cancer in athletes, new studies suggest the turf may have additional toxins.

The issue of artificial turf fields using CRI has been a topic of debate among the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, School Board and county parents for years. The debate, however, is not exclusive to Loudoun and has plagued so many jurisdictions, the Environmental Protection Agency EPA has launched a joint study investigating CRI.

Should the EPA study come back revealing CRI fields do harm to students and families using them, LCPS would have to tear up all CRI fields, wasting the millions of dollars it took to install them, School Board member Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) said.

All Loudoun high schools are budgeted to have synthetic turf fields, DeKenipp said. Heritage and Dominion high schools will have turf fields installed this summer. Briar Woods and Freedom high schools' turf fields will be installed in 2019 now that the school bond was approved by voters Tuesday.

All other Loudoun high schools currently have synthetic turf fields.

DeKenipp noted he has yet to support the installation of a synthetic turf field and believes the county has moved prematurely in installing fields before the government study's conclusion.

“We're in a bad position,” DeKenipp said. “If we keep installing them and [the study] comes back that they're harmful, we'll have to tear up all the fields at schools.”

Additionally, the county is also planning two synthetic public fields at the upcoming Hal and Berni Hanson Regional Park, though it has not yet settled on the type of synthetic field, according to Parks and Recreation officials.

Crumb rubber infill is often made from recycled tires that contain materials that can cause cancer, birth defects and other health issues under some conditions, according to some studies. Nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, has banned the CRI turf.

However, other studies, including one published earlier this year by the Washington Department of Health, found exposure to toxic chemicals from crumb rubber are very low. County staff analyzed the report and agreed with the study's finding earlier this year.

County staff also researched alternatives to CRI like thermoplastic elastomers, which Supervisor Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) supported. However, they found alternatives would be $200,000 to $325,000 more expensive than CRI synthetic turf.

In addition to potential chemical toxins, parents have also raised concerns over the hardness of synthetic turf which can cause concussions in a higher rate and how the rubber heats up during the summer, causing burns and heatstroke in athletes.

According to a University of Arkansas study, when air temperature is 98 degrees, the fields can heat up to between 173 and 199 degrees. The heat also increases the gas output of chemicals in the synthetic turf, making athletes more likely to breathe in toxins, according to Environment and Human Health Inc (EHH).

Recently, parents have again advocated against synthetic turf fields as reports of lead in the rubber infill have surfaced. Because the particles break down over time, Loudoun's children playing on these fields can absorb the lead by breathing it in or through skin contact. Once in the lungs, the toxins can be distributed throughout the body, according to EHH.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), even at half the level previously considered safe, a child's exposure to lead can cause irreversible cognitive and behavioral problems.

“I think the biggest issue today is that parents do not fully understand the dangers of lead and the risks we are exposing our children to, according to the AAP,” Loudoun mother Tammy Cornejo said. “Many parents today may have been around when lead paint was already gone from shelves and/or being removed from homes. We do not remember that fear and danger of exposure and do not fully understand the irreversible brain damage that this sort of exposure can lead to.”

A joint EPA, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) study will be released later this year. Loudoun parents were asked to participate in the study in mid-September, according to a community group.

“We all know that car tires were not meant to be ingested or inhaled, yet we are having our children play on tire crumb for hours a time, day after day without question,” Cornejo said. “We see it on their clothes and faces, we see the dust cloud when the ball hits the ground or they run. It's all so scary and not being talked about enough.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the Parks and Recreation Department has not settled on CRI synthetic turf and is still exploring all options for materials.


Dante, That was an uninformed hateful answer which unfortunately these anonymous forums allow. We built a home in Lucketts which is why I did not run again as an incumbent representing Ashburn. I did run for at large and lost to the incumbent and I did run for Commonwealth Attorney which is also countywide and although receiving about 26000 votes did not win. I don’t consider any of that as “being booted off”. Why not be more civil on these boards and stick to the issues instead of trying to throw stones at contributors?

I’ll bet those kids up in Lucketts are really worried about this…while they wait for the “art cart” to show up to their unheated classroom.  I’ll bet the bus drivers are agonizing over the artificial turf debate too. 

I remember a short time ago, during a redistricting public forum, a guy got up and said he has moved into a high school district because they had a freshman lacrosse team. Seriously?  You bought a house for that reason?

Howard Cossell was right—sports occupy a disproportionately high place in our society…and that is particularly true in Loudoun.

I have been involved in the sports fields business for almost 30 years.  I have recently moved on to other ventures.  However, all of this speculation about the crumb rubber infill is just that….speculation.  There have been several studies which have concluded that there are no links between cancer or other afflictions and the crumb rubber infill. 
The reasons these fields have been installed over the past few years in LC is that there is an enormous demand put on the athletic fields and grass fields just cannot cope with the use.  There are also other benefits besides durability that make synthetic turf fields appealing.  There are no fertilizers needed, no machines needed for mowing or weekly maintenance and no water needed on a regular basis. So the environmental impact is virtually eliminated. They are also great surfaces to play on if done correctly.
There will always be the annoyance of the little infill balls in every little corner of your cleats and floor mats.  The playing surface is definitely hot during the day in the summer months as well.
With all that said the industry needs to work on a different color at the very least for the infill so it does’t retain so much heat. We all need to continue to research the rubber infill as well as some of the other infills that are being tested.  There is a field in MD which is trying cork for an infill rather than crumb rubber.  I have heard of other natural and synthetic solutions as well.
In the end, let’s be smart and find out exactly what the impact of crumb rubber is, if any at all, and continue to try to improve on this huge investment we have made into having some of the the best athletic fields in the state instead of just having a knee jerk reaction of tear up our top notch fields and go back to the same problems that we have had with grass fields forever. 
In other words, let make an informed and intelligent decision moving forward.

There is a reason Bob got booted off the board.  There is no reason to bring him back

Bob, I hope you do run. I am not sure which district you live in, but if it’s Ashburn, it would provide the extra bonus of kicking the corrupt Hornberger off as well. As I recall, 30% of the voters refused to vote for him even though he was the only name on the ballot in 2015.

Fair question. I know of districts that have done this as well. The average high school in Loudoun has about 1600 to 2000 students who have physical education, marching bands and many sports that use the fields every day. The schools and their fields are also part of the community resource fabric meaning parks and recreation use all the school facilities as well. It is not free to have children bused after school to a different location to play/practice nor is it safe for them to drive themselves in my opinion. Finally (and I know you probably won’t like this) Loudoun is considered to be the wealthiest county in the USA with parents that WANT/DEMAND their school have EVERYTHING every other school has so if we were to ever take something away there would be hundreds showing up to demand every school be the same. We are wealthy as a school district due primarily to having one of the highest tax rates in the state of Virginia tied to one of the highest property values in the state which is why LCPS is now running over $1 BILLION per year in operating costs not counting a few hundred million per year in capital projects. Hope that answered your question. FYI I am not currently on the school board but am considering running again as I believe lots can be improved to get us the very best yet efficient school system.
Bob Ohneiser Esq.

What’s so hard about playing on grass and dirt? Kids have been doing it for millions of years.

They can’t be just removed because the “crumbs” play a role in softening the surface. if you remove them, then all you will have is hard rubber “blades of grass” with none of the cushioning characterics that grass has.

Question to @bob, if there is insufficient water sources, why wasn’t the decision made to utilize another location/field? Not every high school needs their own playing field. I lived for some time in TX and there were three GIANT stadiums that each HS in the ISD would rotate at (6 schools, 3 fields). This not only saved on county budgets, but also didn’t require as much ongoing maintenance.

Why I prefer to have the field installed, I’m curious as to why the entire field would have to be ripped up rather than simply removing the rubber chips.

Get rid of the Crumb Rubber crap. Dirt, Grass, and water is all you need. And when you kids come home, they don’t unload a million crumb rubber particles in your home when they take off their shoes.

Wow, so Loudoun could be on the hook for billions in lawsuit in future. Really, all it will take is 1 kid to show signs and then what?

It seems like the current school board hasn’t read prior school board decisions including “WHY” certain decisions were made. When I chaired the finance committee and made the motion to build the first two artificial turf fields (Tuscarora and Woodgrove) it was explained that unlike schools such as Broad Run which had their own functioning water wells for irrigation these two schools had either extremely expensive water availability or no water availability making the decision work. On top of that we spent a very small percentage of what is now considered appropriate yet held the developers liable for all warranties for the first ten years of use. This would include keeping dust levels down to minimize the issues raised in this article. Building turf fields on schools like Broad Run never made financial sense and now with health concerns from less than perfectly built or maintained fields is an insult to prudent financial stewardship and health considerations of the County from my experience. All the records of why strict deliverables are needed to manage the Superintendent, boundary considerations that went into changing boundary policies, why recreation IS education which easily challenges why activity fees for athletic participation never made sense and even which schools can be renovated for expansion instead of relying on new schools only decisions etc are all available to be read and understood by school board members.
Bob Ohneiser Esq.

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