Year in Review Top Story: Presence of PFAS in artificial turf fields causes school to pause plans
The Inquirer and Mirror
(Dec. 29, 2022) The debate over the so-called forever chemicals, a class of cancer-causing chemicals known by the acronym PFAS, moved from the airport and fire department to the high school this year, when a move to install synthetic turf athletic fields led to an ongoing argument about the potential danger to the island’s water supply.
In May of 2021, the Nantucket Airport had agreed to pay the water bills of 23 neighboring homeowners who have been forced to move off of well-water and connect to the town water due to PFAS contamination.
The contamination of these cancer-causing chemicals was likely caused by a fire suppressant foam called AFFF, which was used during firefighting drills at the airport over decades that has seened into the surrounding groundwater.
The Airport Commission voted unanimously to pay a one-time $1000 reimbursement which they said represents approximately a year’s worth of water bills.
A handful of affected residents had asked the airport to pay their water bills in perpetuity because they were forced to give up their well service which had no monthly charge attached.
“It seems irresponsible to damage a person’s water system, expose them to harmful and dangerous chemicals, and then when fixing the situation to saddle them with a monthly bill that they otherwise would not have had,” said Nicole Gross, one of two homeowners in the affected area that wrote to the Airport Commission requesting water bill compensation.
Gross said it was not just about the money. While she and her family waited to connect to town water, the specter of PFAS looms large over their household.
“We use large water jugs now for our drinking and cooking water but we are still exposed through bathing and washing dishes and clothes to the well water,” she said. “It’s really an unsettling thing as a parent to not know what the long-term effects may be on your children that are still growing and developing.”
Meanwhile, the Nantucket Public School’s Campus Wide Master Plan called for the installation of two synthetic turf fields, to take advantage of the minimal upkeep required for the turf fields, as opposed to upkeep required to deal with the wear and tear of traditional grass fields.
Ayesha Khan Barber had watched her husband Nate, a Nantucket fire fighter, and his colleagues deal with both the problem of PFAS chemicals in AFFF and in the manufacture of the very turnout gear they wear to fires.
Now she began hearing the same industry arguments being used in the sale of the turf fields.
“Two years ago, I would have been out voting for this turf,” she said. “Had the experience with the foam not happened, I’d be saying turf, sounds like the greatest thing since sliced bread. Let’s do it. However, when I see the same dialogue being used, I thought it’s the exact same message points. When I heard the good ‘PFAS/bad PFAS’ phrase at the first meeting with the consultant, I thought, ‘We heard that three years ago’.”
The two turf fields were only part of a much larger, $17 million master plan to revamp the school’s outdoor athletic facilities. The issue of whether the artificial turf might leach PFAS, which has been linked to cancer and other diseases, into the island’s water table, raised its head when a toxicologist hired by the town, Laura Green, Ph.D., left the project amid controversy.
Greene had downplayed the health and environmental effects of the PFAS used to make the artificial turf. She had told much the same thing to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which was considering a similar synthetic turf field on that island.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency, according to the Vineyard Gazette, “disavowed many of her claims about the alleged safety of PFAS.”
A contentious debate, which included both engineers hired by the school and independent scientists, came to a head at a school committee workshop in February. The workshop was set up by Tim Lepore, MD, the chair of the school committee.
After nearly two hours of back-and-forth between representatives from Weston & Sampson, the engineering firm hired by the school, and a half-dozen scientist who offered dissenting views, school committee member Pauline Proch said it was Nantucket Land Council executive director Emily Molden’s comments that summed it up best for her.
“The science on this is still just too young for a real full assessment of PFAS risk,” Molden said. “Overall there is just a risk that at this time is unquantifiable.”
School Committee chairman Dr. Tom Lepore, who set up the workshop, was happy with the free-flowing discussion between experts on both sides of the issue.
“I think it will give the public reasons to understand what the potential problems are with turf fields,” he said.
In the end, the turf fields were removed from the town meeting appropriations article funding the campus wide master plan.