Artificial turf is replacing natural grass at many schools and parks in Montgomery County. But is it safe?
In late August, work crews raced to finish the new artificial turf field at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in time for the start of the fall sports season. Over several days, workers laid the turf in large rectangular strips. The bright green field was a welcome sight to B-CC student-athletes and their parents. In 2016, B-CC’s natural grass field was turned into a staging area for the equipment and materials needed for a major addition to the school. Since then, the football, lacrosse, soccer and field hockey teams have played their games at other schools.
Even before the school construction started, there was little doubt that something had to be done about the B-CC field. With about 2,200 students, B-CC is one of Montgomery County’s largest schools in terms of enrollment, but at 16.4 acres, the property it sits on is, by far, the smallest. The school has only one multipurpose athletic field (in addition to a baseball/softball field). The old natural grass athletic field used to be reseeded every summer, but much of the grass would be worn away midway through the fall sports season, exposing cementlike dirt.
For the B-CC sports booster club, replacing the grass with artificial turf was a necessity. “We’ve been trying to get a turf field for many years,” says Kristie Galic, who served as the club’s president during the 2018-2019 school year. “There were many instances where the [old] field was unplayable.”
B-CC’s switch to an artificial turf field—and the installation of more than 20 of them over the last 10 years by Montgomery County Public Schools and the county’s parks department—hasn’t made everyone happy. Area parents and players, as well as environmental and community advocates, have banded together in recent years to question and investigate the safety of artificial turf fields in the county. They are part of a loose network of local and national individuals and organizations called the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition.
The group has a Facebook page and a website and has taken steps to become a nonprofit. Members worry that the materials used in the fields, the way the fields can get hard after years of use, and how hot the fields become on warm days may pose health risks to the people playing on them.
In Montgomery County, a core group of about 30 people have taken the lead. They attend meetings of the school board, the county council and the Maryland General Assembly to press their case. More follow the issue on social media.
Chorman Romano of Bethesda has two teenagers who play a lot of soccer. Short of the bruises, scrapes and occasional broken bones that can be expected when a scrum of teenagers runs around a field trying to force a ball into a goal, she sends them out the door in their uniforms, cleats and pads with the expectation that they will be safe.