The following letter is in response to the Town Council’s recent approval of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Town of Watertown and Buckingham Browne & Nichols School to share share fields — the new artificial turf fields planned by the school on Grove Street and the fields at Filippello Park.
For more than a decade, the artificial turf industry’s campaign to convince
municipalities, private schools, colleges and universities to build new artificial turf playing fields and to replace existing grass playing fields with artificial turf has grown steadily and has been highly successful.
What has also grown is public opposition to this high powered, highly profitable, and often dishonest campaign. The industry’s claim that artificial turf has been proven to be safe for student athletes and for the general public is untrue.
When public input is kept out of the decision-making process, the industry almost always wins. Why? Because they strategically enlist respected members of the community: coaches, athletic directors, town boosters, and alumni to bang home the message that without being given the artificial turf “advantage” our student athletes are being short-changed and disrespected.
But, when the public is allowed to enter the conversation, the outcome is a
different matter. It is usually from members of the public that the issues of
health, safety, and the environment are put on the table, forcing decision-makers to consider the consequences of buying a product, based on a one-sided sales proposition.
The green in artificial turf comes from chemicals, lead, and other dangerous toxins. The durability comes from other chemicals. On hot, sunny days the temperature of artificial turf can reach 10 to 20 degrees hotter than the air temperature, while grass fields may be 2 or 3 degrees cooler than the air temperature.
What is the health effect of extreme heat and direct sun on the chemicals being released from the plastic field? How vulnerable are children with undeveloped immune systems and adults with compromised immune systems? What damage is being done to the environment? The industries answer can be summed up as: Everything is fine. You can’t prove otherwise.
In 2014, the Watertown Recreation Department’s plan to turn the Victory Field oval into artificial turf brought out several hundred residents who made their opposition perfectly clear. Their opposition was based on the growing body of evidence that plastic playing fields were unhealthy, unsafe, and harmful to the environment. Town Councilors and town management representatives were present at those meetings. Subsequently, the Town Council decreed that there would be no artificial turf on the Victory Field oval.
Since that time, the case against artificial turf has continued to grow.
What happens when artificial turf deteriorates to the point that it needs to be replaced? Vendors usually “guarantee” that the old plastic carpets will be
recycled. There are currently no recycling facilities in the U.S. that accept artificial turf and shipping the toxic trash to an overseas recycling facility is financially prohibitive.
So, contractors hire other contractors to take the disposal problem off their
The average artificial turf field weighs 40,000 pounds. The infill required to soften the field and prop up the plastic blades can weigh as much as 400,000 pounds. Where will it all go?
Reports continue to come in of these used-up fields being illegally dumped on remote public land, or in vacant lots. In other cases, cash-strapped landowners are paid for allowing it to be dumped on their land. But most of it will end up in landfill, where financially struggling municipalities charge a fee to accept the toxic trash.
Artificial turf playing fields are expected to last for about 8 to 10 years. When Watertown’s current artificial turf field is ripped up and replaced (hopefully as a state of the art natural grass field) — which will happen in the not so distant future — it is likely to end up in a “mystery location,” where it will become someone else’s problem, where these non-biodegradable chemicals will continue poisoning air, earth, and water forever.
Here is what we know about the climate crisis. Summers will only get longer and hotter, making artificial turf more toxic, while open grassy areas will become even more treasured. The increased frequency of extreme rainstorms will guarantee more toxic runoff into rivers and streams.
In enlightened communities all across the country, where experts testify, and informed citizens weigh-in, artificial turf initiatives are rejected. The town of Sharon, Massachusetts is a great example.
The Sharon School Committee requested that artificial turf be installed on the high school football field. In June 2020, after a year-long battle, led by a citizens’ opposition group, the Sharon Conservation Commission voted to deny installation, based on potential contamination of surrounding land and water.
The project team, advocating for installing the artificial turf, argued that there was no proof that such contamination was likely. The Commission’s response was that the burden of proof should not be placed on the Commission but instead should fall to the project team to prove the environmental safety of placing the plastic field on the designated site. And, since artificial turf manufacturers consider their recipe of chemicals to be a proprietary secret, no compelling proof of safety could be offered.
The Commission Chair, Peg Arguimbau, shared some of the relevant public input. The Commission received 77 emails against plastic turf and 23 emails in favor. Those who opposed artificial turf cited health, safety, and environmental concerns. Those in favor of artificial turf cited the need for field space and hours of usage.
That approximate 3-to-1 ratio, along with the reasons cited, resemble the
community response during the public testimonies at the Victory Field hearings of 2014.
What I would like to ask the members of the Sharon School Committee, who put forward the request for artificial turf on their high school football field, is:
What are you teaching your students?
Do you think that your kids are happily unaware of the pollution being pumped into their earth, their air, and their water, contaminating their food sources and compromising their health?
Or, were you just acquiescing to the loudest voices in the room?
And, this is what I would ask of our town government:
Did those who made the deal with BB&N truly fight for the health and welfare of all Watertown residents?
Did they decide that one more assault on our environment would be overlooked because it would be tucked away in a corner of our town, or because it blocked the possibility of a developer building yet another apartment complex, hotel, or biotech facility?
Or did they just accept the deal on the table and then call it a day?
Finally, why does the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between BB&N and Watertown state “… The Cooperative Agreement will expand access to open green space for active recreation use by the children and adults in Watertown and other nearby communities and by the students of BB&N…”, yet the Partnership Agreement between BB&N and Watertown indicate two multi-purpose synthetic fields?” See the Town Council Agenda, November 24, 2020, for these documents:
We might never know because we were not there. Public involvement, also
known as democracy, can definitely be messy, but without it, even the best
representatives can be tempted to opt for a shortcut that disregards the wish of the voters and ignores the reality of the environmental crisis all of us must face.
Do you agree that we are entitled to answers before this MOU is finalized? If so, please leave a comment on Watertown News.
With warm regards to all,
We Are All Watertown