Fairfield residents split on artificial turf for athletic fields
FAIRFIELD — As the town looks to upgrade its many athletic fields, some residents are advocating that officials not permit artificial turf fields, citing environmental and safety concerns.
Officials say the issue of artificial fields have been on their radar for years. It recently came up again when the Representative Town Meeting approved a $4.1 million Roger Ludlowe Middle School sports project, which includes adding a turf field.
The discussion around that project has sparked a more critical view of the material used for the fields, including a proposed ordinance that would ban the use of crumb rubber on any turf fields built in town. Crumb rubber is recycled rubber produced from scrap tires that can be used as infill in the construction of turf fields. Members of the public have raised concerns that it may have negative health impacts on people using them.
“My kids do play sports,” said Jill Vergara, the RTM District 7 member who introduced the ordinance. “I’ve seen the deficiencies in our fields. I know that it’s really hard to have all the grass fields. They need rest. We have a town of 10,000 kids and we just don’t have enough spaces to rotate them around properly. But, I also want it to be done responsibly. I think there are concerns about turf.”
Residents advocating for a moratorium or ban on new construction of turf fields in Fairfield say the artificial turf can cause injuries, can be hot to play on and the fill poses health and environmental concerns. Supporters of the fields say turf fields are safe and abundant in the area and having more in Fairfield could help address the town’s field issues, as well as give the grass fields a break.
Mary Hogue, a member of the Sustainable Fairfield Task Force, said she recognizes the goal of having no artificial turf is unrealistic, but wants to limit the number of turf fields in town because of first hand accounts she has heard from athletes who said it was painful. She also shared health and environmental concerns.
Dylan O’Connor, the co-president of the Fairfield Athletic Foundation and a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said environmental and health impact studies have already been conducted for turf fields and posted on the Connecticut Department of Health website. He said the town has a field shortage and this could help.
The discussion is not specific to Fairfield, as other towns have also had pushback from people concerned with the potential impact of turf fields. In 2018, neighboring Westport banned crumb rubber because of concerns the material could impact people’s health.
A year later, a bill that would have banned municipalities from purchasing turf fields circled through the state legislature.
Fairfield advocates and officials have noted that, as the Parks and Recreation master plan comes closer to finalization, there will undoubtedly be more proposals to install turf fields around town as time goes on.
Type of fill
Vergara said the RTM’s Legislation and Administration Committee is considering her ordinance that would restrict crumb rubber. It will likely go to the full body in September or October if it advances out of the committee.
It was inspired by the recent attention to the middle school turf proposal which received 170 emails, compared to the 140 emails about the budget, she wrote in a letter to the committee. She said the majority of the emails were in support of the project but there were also many opposed to it or opposed to the use of crumb rubber.
In light of that, Vergara said it was the consensus of all major players in the discussion that crumb rubber not be used for that project or any others going forward. The RTM amended the appropriation to require the use of Envirofill, an alternative infill seen as more environmentally friendly.
Vergara said her ordinance would establish a baseline — “that no rubber infill materials will be used in new installations—so that we do not have to revisit this decision every time an artificial turf field project is reviewed.”
Anthony Calabrese, Fairfield’s Parks and Recreation director, also noted the state Department of Health considers turf fields safe. He said his department will support whatever residents want to do, and will try and build turf fields using whatever infill it is allowed to use, but alternative infills are more costly.
“As long as they are willing to fund the higher cost fields, we’re willing to build them,” he said.
O’Connor said he and other advocates for more turf fields in town are not wed to crumb rubber, and are fine with alternatives like Envirofill.
“I’m not an expert on crumb rubber, but I do know enough to know that it’s probably not the best option,” he said. “There are better options out there and we are 100 percent in favor of exploring the safest option for our kids and for our town.”
Opposition to turf fields
Hogue said for a town that supports a pollinator pathway, it is not environmentally friendly to have large spaces of synthetic grass.
Sustainable Fairfield sent a letter to the RTM opposing the plans for a turf field at RLMS, raising concerns about “the health and safety of Fairfield’s children, damage to local ecosystems, and concerns for contaminated runoff leaking into our watershed and ultimately into Long Island Sound .”
The letter cited in a study by the University Hospitals Sports Medicine Institute that found athletes were 58 percent more likely to sustain an injury during athletic activity on artificial turf. The study found injury rates were significantly higher for football, soccer and rugby athletes.
The group also said that according to the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute, tire crumb contains chemicals that are known to be hazardous to human health and the environment, and other types of infills can also have chemicals of concern. The institute also notes turf cannot be recycled in most cases, and often ends up in landfills, as well as contributes to microplastic pollution.
Sustainable Fairfield also referenced a newsletter from National Football League Players Association president JC Tretter that calls for NFL teams to change all field surfaces to natural grass to reduce the risk of injury to players. He cites the league’s official injury reports from 2012-2018 to back up his point.
Sustainable Fairfield’s letter went on to say that turf fields amplify heat during warm weather, quoting Dr. Sarah Evans, a Fairfield resident and professor of Health and Environmental Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“There are very real risks of heat injury that make playing on even moderately hot days inadvisable, and this applies to all infill types,” Evans said.
Support for turf fields
O’Connor said there are about 50 turf fields in the surrounding area that Fairfield athletes are already playing on.
“Even if you are the most conservative parent in the world, and you do not want your son or daughter playing on a turf field… your son or daughter is not going to be able to play sports,” he said. “Regardless of what sport they play, they are going to be on a turf field in a different town at some point.”
O’Connor said he would not want to put his children in harm’s way or make the world worse for them, but said the environmental and health concerns “are baseless.”
“These kids have been playing on it safely for almost two decades,” he said, noting there are turf fields at Tomlinson Middle School and at both public high schools.
The town is paying for its lack of synthetic fields, O’Connor said, because many of the grass fields in town are torn up. He noted that Fairfield Athletic Foundation does not just advocate for turf fields, but overall improved athletic infrastructure in town.
“We want a healthy mix of turf and grass,” he said. “We want to take a really sound look at what have and what we should have to support the huge athletic programs that we have. It’s a sports town, and it’s an enormous part of these kids’ lives.”
O’Connor said Fairfield’s fields are overused, adding they can be muddy, and have issues with drainage and grass growing back. He said turf will be a good solution to help curb those issues.
Calabrese said Fairfield has a field shortage, with many of the fields overused and not enough of them to take one offline for the season.
“Our fields are constantly beaten up,” he said.