Crumb rubber for new field center of debate

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The use of “crumb rubber” as fill under a synthetic turf field, like the one at Cheshire High School pictured above, planned for Naugatuck High School has stirred a debate locally. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — A national debate over the use of recycled tires in artificial turf fields has made its way in recent weeks to the borough.

The $81 million plan to renovate Naugatuck High School includes the installation of a revamped football and soccer field made of artificial turf. The Inland Wetlands and Zoning commissions approved the plan this month after discussing for hours the use of “crumb rubber,” a common component made of old tires, as a fill layer under the turf.

Parents and health advocacy groups nationwide have protested the use of crumb rubber, noting it contains chemicals such as zinc, lead and carbon black, a potential carcinogen.

Members of the Zoning Commission weighed those concerns against government studies that reported little danger from the material. The commission approved the project under the condition that the building committee in charge of the renovation consider an alternate infill material for the field.

“We have received no conclusive evidence that there are definitely high levels of this that could affect health,” said Diana Raczkowski, vice chair. “If we had, then I would say we could deny this based on that, but I see six of one, half a dozen of the other. It’s like, who do we believe here?”

A study four years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio and the Washington, D.C. area found zinc was present in the air above turf fields and on the surface, but the levels were too low to cause concern.

The EPA noted tires can be made of many different materials.

“It is not possible, without additional data, to extend the results beyond the four study sites to reach more comprehensive conclusions,” the EPA wrote.

Zinc in large enough concentrations can harm aquatic life, a concern of the borough’s Inland Wetlands Commission given the school’s proximity to Long Meadow Brook. Kaestle Boos Associates, the New Britain-based firm designing the renovation project, proposed a filtration system they said would eliminate any possible danger.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection concluded two years ago that crumb rubber on turf fields did not create an elevated health risk. A nonprofit research organization called Environmental and Human Health questioned the study, saying it was conducted in cool weather when chemicals were less likely to be released into the air. The organization also noted that only three people were playing on the fields, kicking up less chemical discharge than an entire football team would.

New York City and Los Angeles have banned crumb rubber in artificial turf. Officials in Cheshire and Watertown also expressed concerns in recent years about the material before installing synthetic turf on school fields.

Joseph Savarese, the zoning commission’s chair who worked for decades in the rubber and plastic industries, said crumb rubber could overheat easily. He said he wanted the architects to use a material similar to Flex Sand, or grains of sand coated in plastic.

Savarese said crumb rubber shifts easily when damaged and the sand-and-plastic alternative will give athletes a better footing. James Sperry, a landscape architect for Kaestle Boos, said the sand-based alternative does not resist as much impact and proposed a mixture of seven pounds sand to three pounds of crumb rubber.

“We have a liability, the school has a liability and it has to have a certain amount of resilience,” Sperry said.

An estimate has not been done of the cost difference between plastic-coated sand and crumb rubber for the project. Savarese said the plastic-coated sand would cost more but could last longer.

“This may be an alternative that would put a lot of concerns to the side,” Savarese said.

The project’s overseers can solicit bids for crumb rubber infill and alternative mixtures when the project goes out to bid around Thanksgiving, with the approval of high school Athletic Director Tom Pompei, according to Sperry.

Burgess Robert Neth, chair of the project’s building committee, said he understood the commissioners’ concerns and the building committee would discuss them, but he was not sure crumb rubber would do anyone harm.

“They’ve been using this stuff and it’s not a major concern to anybody because if it was, I’m sure it wouldn’t be on the market,” Neth said.

The borough is now waiting for state approval of the project’s design so work can begin in March as planned, Neth said.

“Hopefully, they’re going to expedite it so that we can get going,” Neth said. “I don’t think there’s room for any large hiccups.”