In need of a new athletic field and already concerned about “forever chemicals” in its drinking water, the city council of Portsmouth, N.H., voted two years ago to install a new synthetic turf field only if it was “PFAS-free.”
PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a family of thousands of compounds that do not break down in the environment. Some have been linked to health problems including kidney and liver issues, along with various cancers. The City Council did not want to take a chance that the field could create more contamination.
But once installed, testing performed by a local advocacy group found organic fluorine in the field, an indicator that it might contain PFAS. City-ordered tests for specific compounds confirmed there were indeed some PFAS in the turf. Now, the City Council appears poised to accept potential athlete and environmental exposure, angering concerned residents who want the city to sue manufacturers.
“Where is the accountability from the city [when] we did not get the turf the City Council approved? You should be upset about that,” asked Portsmouth resident Andrea Amico at a June council meeting. “You should not be setting a precedent that a manufacturer can lie to you in writing without any consequences.”
The city’s experience has emerged as a cautionary tale for many other communities across the country grappling with whether to replace degrading natural athletic fields with artificial turf.
“Portsmouth is a really good example of [how] it’s really hard to put the horse back in the barn after the doors are open,” said Kyla Bennett, director of science policy at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who has worked with a number of environmental groups battling turf fields in their communities. “The moral of the story in Portsmouth is it is much easier to investigate this stuff first, before you put it in, than it is to deal with the fallout.”
Three years ago, when Portsmouth was considering how to restore its athletic field complex, The Boston Globe reported that tests of athletic turf in Franklin, Mass., contained organic fluorine. Portsmouth is no stranger to PFAS, which contaminate part of the city’s water supply due to the use of aqueous firefighting foam at a former Air Force base there.
The city was considering a turf field because soggy New England springs mean natural grass fields are out of commission for much of the season. But Portsmouth did not want to further imperil its drinking water.
Aware of the Massachusetts findings, the city’s consultants — Weston & Sampson — promised in a February 2020 public meeting that the chemicals would not be an issue. In a PowerPoint slide, they said they would “require PFAS-free materials in the bid specifications,” and pledged that they already had documentation from two manufacturers to that end. That included a promise from the company FieldTurf that “Our supplier has confirmed that their products are free of PFAS, PFOS and fluorine.”
Portsmouth ultimately contracted with that company and approved the $3.5 million artificial athletic field.
The conditions comforted Amico, whose family already had elevated levels of PFAS in their blood due to the Air Force base. “I signed my kids up for soccer. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, it’s PFAS-free, it’s great,’” she said. “The city made us feel safe.”
But local advocacy group Non Toxic Portsmouth argued that PFAS-free turf does not exist. On the day the field was being installed, member Ted Jankowski cut samples from rolls of the artificial turf before it could even be put in the ground. Those samples were sent to a lab in Michigan, which found high levels of organic fluorine.
Additional tests ordered by the City Council found multiple compounds, including 135 parts per trillion of PFOS. EPA released a health advisory in June saying just 20 parts per quadrillion was the maximum safe level for that chemical in drinking water (Greenwire, June 15).
Weston & Sampson then asserted that city officials had simply misunderstood their agreement. The bid documents only specify that levels of 30 compounds should be so low they cannot be detected by a particular EPA-approved laboratory method.
That list of 30 compounds includes PFOS, but the EPA-approved laboratory method mentioned in the contract bid is not the same city-ordered test that ultimately uncovered the compound in the turf. So, while advocates want the city to sue Weston & Sampson and the turf manufacturer, city officials say no agreement has been breached.
“We felt and continue to feel, based on the recent testing and results, that the testing performed in the original bid specification was sufficient to determine safety of the product,” Deputy City Manager and Deputy City Attorney Suzanne Woodland said.
Weston & Sampson did not respond to a request for comment. But consultants at the group TRC, which conducted the testing for the city, also told a City Council meeting that the fields pose no risk to players whose skin might come into contact with them. Iannick Di Sanza, director of marketing for FieldTurf, said the company “complied with all of the specification requests and even voluntarily submitted our product for additional testing that was outside of the initial requirements.”
FieldTurf cited the TRC testing and emphasized their conclusion that “a limited number of PFAS in the synthetic turf components does not represent a human health risk.”
That has left local advocates enraged.
“That’s lying, we call that lying,” Diana Carpinone, president of Non Toxic Portsmouth, said of the consultants’ promises. “We want [the council] to sue and go after Weston & Sampson, and go after the manufacturers, and say, ‘This is fraud, we bought a product you told us was PFAS-free and it’s not.’”
Amico agreed that the broader process felt dishonest.
“I feel like our community has been deceived,” she said.
To Woodland, the entire issue boils down to multiple miscommunications. She does not think FieldTurf or Weston & Sampson had any ill intentions when they promised a PFAS-free field — they only meant that they were not purposely adding PFAS coatings to the turf.
She does not believe the city would opt against installing turf knowing what they know now. But Woodland added that officials wish they could have avoided “overgeneralizations” and communicated more precisely which compounds they were focused on.
“The city staff and its engineering consultants could have done a better job in 2020 discussing what could and what could not be expected, with regard to PFAS in an artificial turf field,” Woodland said. “The manufacturers could have done a better job at identifying elements of their manufacturing process that might generate PFAS compounds in the product.”
‘We need to … restrict exposure’
Portsmouth’s problems are illustrative of the turmoil surrounding artificial turf projects.
Often scrutinized for the use of crumb rubber infill, which can contain neurotoxic metals like lead, plastic fields are drawing new fire due to PFAS even as manufacturers move away from crumb rubber.
Prized for their ability to repel moisture, PFAS prevent plastic blades of fake grass from sticking to manufacturing equipment. Documents from PFAS manufacturer 3M Co. show the company recommends up to 1,000 parts per million of certain compounds to aid in such processing. A consultant for the synthetic turf industry said last year that the chemicals PVDF and PVDF-HFP are used in manufacturing, before later telling E&E News that PVDF-HFP was the only compound used and that it would not break down (Greenwire, Dec. 8, 2021).
But the actual research underpinning the health effects of chemicals like PVDF and PVDF-HFP is scant. An October 2020 study raised questions about the environmental and health implications of PVDF, with additional research indicating that chemical can break down in the presence of ultraviolet light.
Whether PVDF-HFP poses similar concerns is unknown.
In a statement, the Synthetic Turf Council said it did not have information on which specific fluoropolymers might be used as processing aids.
“With the widespread use and availability of PFAS in the environment from many other sources, there is always the possibility of PFAS contamination when testing synthetic turf products,” the group said, emphasizing that the compounds used in the extrusion process are “not the PFAS compounds of concern associated with groundwater and soil contamination.”
Despite expressing confidence in turf safety, however, STC said that some members are working on PFAS alternatives in order to meet market demand.
Turf proponents have cited the presence of PVDF-HFP in surgical sutures and medical devices as evidence that its use in artificial fields should be acceptable. Some toxicologists and other scientists have pushed back, noting that the conditions present on a turf field are very different. Testing meant to imitate the impact of decades of use on turf has shown other PFAS compounds present, which some scientists say could mean that PVDF-HFP can break down into more concerning compounds, like the PFOS found in Portsmouth’s field.
That reality has raised red flags for the Icahn School of Medicine Children’s Environmental Health Center. The team has written letters to municipalities weighing whether to invest in turf, discouraging the decision over concerns about exposure risks for children.
Sarah Evans, a faculty member at Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center, also highlighted the many unknowns that surround most PFAS. “[It’s] a very stable bond that persists in the environment and builds up in the body,” she said. “We suspect most of the chemicals in that class are going to have similar effects. The absence of evidence of harm is not evidence of absence of harm.”
Chemical exposure can be particularly concerning for children. Evans expressed concern about “additive and multiplicative avenues of exposure” from children who might be exposed to PFAS from turf and other sources, like drinking water, that could ultimately harm small bodies.
Skin contact is not the only way that athletes or kids could be exposed to chemicals in the turf. They could also accidentally ingest the compounds if they touch their mouths after touching the turf.
“I would say we need to, to the greatest degree possible, restrict exposure to these chemicals,” she said.
Turf wars are also raging in other parts of the country.
In Los Gatos, Calif., some parents have become embroiled in a fight over plans to put in artificial plastic grass at local elementary schools. Similar battles are playing out in states like Connecticut and Vermont with a focus on high schools.
All have involved some level of concern around PFAS, with water contamination in the backdrop. In Woodbridge, Conn., for example, testing has shown PFAS levels rose in surface water yards away from the Amity High School field after its construction, an uptick local advocates attribute to the turf. PFOA and PFOS levels in that water are above the threshold now considered safe by EPA. FieldTurf installed that field and said it would be free of total PFAS measured under EPA’s testing method.
Tracy Stewart has been fighting turf across Massachusetts for nearly a decade, including in the town of Franklin, where she connected used turf discarded near wetlands to increased PFAS contamination. In 2019, she and PEER’s Bennett confirmed through testing that the turf contained elevated levels of Total Organic Fluorine. But the town has yet to address questions around turf, even as concerns over PFAS in drinking water have cropped up.
Advocates concerned about turf say industry’s focus on whether it could harm athletes ignores a bigger fear: that the material could contaminate the surrounding environment. Years in the sun and rain could cause chemicals to enter local drinking water and waterways.
One of the most heated debates over turf is playing out on a Massachusetts island.
Martha’s Vineyard has preexisting PFAS contamination and relies on a single aquifer for drinking water. But school officials have vehemently pushed for a multimillion-dollar turf project, arguing it will bolster the performance of student athletes.
That dispute took on a violent tone earlier this year. Oak Bluffs’ health agent, Meegan Lancaster, had been advising the town’s health board on the potential for PFAS contamination from a synthetic field when she found 10-millimeter shell casings in her personal tote bag. She left the job not long afterward, according to the Martha’s Vineyard Times.
Ultimately, the Oak Bluffs Planning Board voted to deny a permit for the field, citing concern that PFAS could ultimately leach into the water supply. They pointed to calculations conducted by a regional regulatory body finding the field could leach up to 12 ppt of the six PFAS regulated in Massachusetts into the island’s drinking water annually, including PFOS.
Now, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional School District is challenging the decision with a lawsuit, arguing the board should have listened to town-hired consultants, including Weston & Sampson, who said contamination from the field is “likely insignificant.” Opponents say they are unfazed and will continue fighting. Rebekah Thompson, who works with the nonprofit Field Fund in support of natural fields, said the group was surprised by the extent to which the school system would fight for turf.
“It is shocking to see Martha’s Vineyard school officials challenge the authority of the town to take steps to protect a predefined, environmentally sensitive area,” Thompson said.
A decision to delay
At least one town has opted to put a turf project on hold over health and environmental concerns. In Sharon, Mass., officials imposed a three-year moratorium on the installation of artificial turf.
Like other towns, Sharon has faced pressure to repair crumbling athletic fields. In 2019, the town’s school committee requested the installation of a synthetic football field at Sharon High School, but local advocates pushed back and were successful. In May 2020, the Sharon Conservation Commission rejected the field, and the moratorium followed several months later.
“We went on the warpath,” said Paul Lauenstein, a local advocate who works on water issues.
Residents said that decision was reached due to a range of concerns, like microplastics, crumb rubber and other pollutants associated with such fields. But PFAS were a major factor.
Then, Sharon opted to try something different: experiment with reviving grass fields.
Sharon is working with Ian Lacy, a consultant with an extensive background in both natural and synthetic turf fields. Lacy said the town’s grass fields could be improved through a number of steps, like properly managing drainage and soils. Two fields were ultimately selected as pilot projects to test whether more intensive upkeep would make them more resilient.
“Suffice to say, the fields have improved,” said Lacy, who feels that both synthetic and natural surfaces can have different advantages for athletes. While Lacey has clients on “both sides of the argument,” he emphasized that success has more to do with a commitment to upkeep.
“This is an investment, and you have to sustain that investment,” he said.
With the moratorium lifting next year, Sharon will once again have to decide if it wants to stick to natural grass for good. Lauenstein and other advocates are hopeful that the pilot projects prove it can work for their community.
“The idea is to demonstrate that natural grass can be serviceable,” said Lauenstein. “We don’t have to buy a million-dollar field with 40 tons of plastic.”
Correction: The story has been updated to reflect the correct name of Non Toxic Portsmouth.