Loudoun County school leaders gave the green light for Potomac Falls High School to install an artificial turf field with crumb rubber infill, despite concerns that the material may be dangerous to young athletes.
After a half hour of heated debate Tuesday night, the board voted 5-4 to go with a crumb rubber field for the Cascades high school, and awarded the contract for the $1.56 million project to New York-based contractor The Landtek Group.
Potomac Falls will be the 12th public high school in Loudoun to be outfitted with crumb rubber fields, the cheapest type of artificial turf, and the remaining three high schools are in line to receive synthetic turf fields by 2023.
School system senior staff members recommended the board use crumb rubber, citing a report from Loudoun County Health Department Director Dr. David Goodfriend. In his report to the Joint Board of Supervisors/School Board Committee in March, Goodfriend said he could not find a correlation between use of the rubber pellets—made from recycled tires—and cancer in athletes who play on the fields.
“The number one issue is if it puts kids in harm’s way then we’re not going to do this. The challenge is to prove something is safe and not causing a problem,” he told county and school leaders during a March 18 meeting. “I can’t prove the negative at this point that crumb rubber cannot increase the risk of cancer.”
But the four School Board members who opposed the motion— Beth Huck (At Large), Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge), Eric DeKenipp (Catoctin) and Joy Maloney (Broad Run) said they did not want their names on a decision to expose students to a material that could one day cause harm.
“I want the schools to have the [artificial] turf fields—I do—but not at the expense of children’s health,” Huck said. “I’d rather wait and see if there’s any link that they could find.”
Turgeon pointed out that cigarettes were considered to be safe for decades until the medical community announced, “by the way, these are dangerous,” she said. “I’m hesitant to support something that could be dangerous in the long run.”
There are alternative field infill materials, including acrylic coated sand, thermoplastic elastomer pellets and organic infill. But Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Kevin Lewis told the board he’s heard some negative reports from school systems that have used them. One ended up having to spray pesticides on a field with organic infill to keep weeds down. “There’s no guarantee that if we were to move to some of these other materials that other issues wouldn’t come up,” he said.
Responding to board members’ concerns, Superintendent Eric Williams defended the senior staff members’ recommendation to go with crumb rubber for now: “If [Dr. Goodfriend] were saying anything that would suggest to not proceed with crumb rubber, that would carry great weight with me. But that has not occurred.”
School Board member Debbie Rose (Algonkian), who represents the district that includes Potomac Falls, was the most vocal proponent of moving forward with approving the field. She said most of the concern from the athletic community was tied to a possible increase in cancer among soccer goalies, not students who play lacrosse and football or use the fields for physical education classes. Plus, she stressed, the 19-year-old Potomac Falls High School has waited long enough for a synthetic turf field.
“There’s an economic advantage, a competitive advantage” that comes with artificial grass fields, she told her colleagues.
Some board members said they preferred to delay the vote until a test on the current fields in the county had been conducted—planned for later this month—but school system staff said that would make it difficult to have the field completed for sports this fall.
Stephanie Heese, a parent of a Loudoun student who has become an activist against the use of crumb rubber, said this week she was “alarmed and disheartened” to hear of the board’s vote. “Either they haven’t taken the time to read and learn the science around this critical issue or they are concerned purely with budget. Neither is an acceptable answer when it comes to entrusting my child’s health,” she said. “We need to use the precautionary principle here; our kids are not a science experiment.”
The Board of Supervisors allocated $1.25 million to install Potomac Falls’ field, and the school system will pull $311,995 from fiscal year 2016 surplus.