Regional field infill debate reflected in Mercer Island

Parents turned out in force for the Bellevue School Board’s May 16 meeting, protesting a decision to use an artificial turf infill that uses questionable chemicals and carcinogens. The board had voted at its May 2 meeting to implement polyurethane-coated crumb rubber infill on its artificial turf fields.

Both the city and school district in Mercer Island are facing the same issue, as the district plans to returf the high school stadium this summer, and the City Council recently approved funding for renovating the south side of Island Crest Park with new turf and lights. Many Islanders weighed in at meetings and via social media about the perceived dangers of one of the options for infill materials: crumb rubber.

As an alternative to grass or other forms of synthetic turf infill, crumb rubber is a popular option for playgrounds and athletic fields. It is made of recycled tires, and nationwide debates among health and athletic experts have emerged over if, or to what extent, the crumb rubber infill is hazardous, due to the known chemicals and carcinogens in the substance.

The Washington State Department of Health says the available research suggests that exposure to crumb rubber will not most likely lead to cancer, but advises people to wash hands after playing on the field, remove shoes, sports equipment and soiled uniforms outside to prevent tracking crumb rubber indoors and to shower after play.

The Bellevue School District will be implementing a polyurethane-coated crumb rubber, which is said to offer better protection from the harmful components of crumb rubber.

Bellevue parent Allison Huff has been a strong advocate against the operation, starting a paper petition that received more than 80 signatures. Due to a lack of response from the board, an online petition was created that had over 300 signatures at press deadline.

Parents and community members claim the board has not been forthcoming in its reasoning to install the polyurethane-coated crumb rubber when there are inconsistent data and studies still in progress.

Currently, the state of California and the EPA are doing studies on the effects of crumb rubber, which are expected to be finished by early 2018.

“I had asked the board to wait until the study is done to make a decision, but they said that they’re going to go forward with this and if any studies come back that it’s actually not safe, they’ll change the material at that time,” Huff said. “Most of the parents are saying, ‘Why take the risk? If there’s all these other schools banning this substance and there’s all this testing going on that isn’t done yet, why take any chances on it with little kids? Why can’t we just go with something that we know is safe?’”

Kate Carte, a parent of a 3-year-old child in the Early Learning Program at Bennett Elementary, mirrored Huff’s opinion.

“I just don’t think you really need to dig into these studies to know that ground-up tires with kids who like to play dogs and cats and roll around on the ground are unsafe,” Carte said.

Parents and community members are advocating for a cork infill because it is organic, does not require a hazardous waste fee, is more playble because it doesn’t retain as much heat and has better concussion protection due to a thicker pad. However, cork costs 70 cents more per square foot, requires higher maintenance due to floating away in flood areas and has a shorter lifecycle.

A half hour before the May 16 board meeting, parents and community members gathered to protest the board’s decision with signs and chanting, “No crumb rubber, keep our children safe.”

“We’ve got lots of community members coming to say that it’s not one crazy mom’s opinion — that we’re all pretty concerned about this,” Carte said. “I hope they’ll listen to us and engage in a dialogue with us and that eventually they’ll change their mind and go with something different — at least for the elementary school kids.”

“I think we all thought that the school board would put the health of children as a priority but at this point I think it’s just frustrating that we’re having to do this for something that’s so obvious and common sense,” Huff said.

During the board meeting’s public comments, 10 people from the community asked the board to revert their vote and choose a different option.

Board President Christine Chew said that she did extensive research on the topic and that the district commissioned a scientist to do a review on the materials and evaluate the research that has been done on crumb rubber. Chew said she was comfortable with the district’s decision.

“It gives a ton of benefits. We get benefit because it doesn’t get as hot, we get benefit because it doesn’t float,” Chew said. “We also have the research on the crumb rubber itself and we know that that it’s provided a safe surface for our kids to play on [as well as] coating the particles. It does protect the kids from direct contact with the crumb rubber.”

The Bellevue School Board plans on testing the product regularly. It ultimately decided to use cork infill on the playgrounds and coated crumb rubber on the athletic fields, and plans on executing this plan for all schools affected this summer.

At the last Mercer Island Council meeting on the topic, community members raised safety concerns and noted a preference for more expensive organic infills, such as cork or sand. City staff pointed out that there is currently no scientific evidence that crumb rubber infill causes health problems such as cancer, that maintenance for the other infill materials is more difficult and that it is more prone to problems like mold and weeds.

The Mercer Island School District will be using the organic cork infill at Islander Stadium, and it will be installed this summer, said Craig Degginger, communications and alumni relations coordinator.

The bid award for the Island Crest Park sportsfields improvements is on the City Council’s planning schedule for June 5, though the final agenda was not available at press time. The council had asked that different types of infill and pricing be included in the bid.

Staff writer Katie Metzger contributed to this report.

Regional field infill debate reflected in Mercer Island