One health scare would have been quite enough for Tacoma public school officials to manage this year, without having another bear down on them with the velocity of a penalty kick fired on goal from point-blank range.
The district faced a crisis of confidence last spring when high lead levels in drinking water at several schools were belatedly reported by a staff member, causing officials to inspect thousands of water fixtures and replace more than 350 of them.
Now it faces questions about potential health risks embedded in the crumb rubber infill spread across athletic fields at 15 campuses. The district is spending $2 million on the controversial synthetic turf product at a handful of new or refurbished fields this summer.
There’s a key difference between the two health concerns. Years of study confirm there is no safe level of lead exposure for children; science has established that lead poisoning presents a clear and present danger to their rapidly developing bodies.
But the evidence against crumb-rubber exposure is anecdotal, largely based on a list of cancer-stricken soccer goalies and other young athletes written in a University of Washington coach's notebook. It’s a grim and growing roll call that is as inconclusive as it is heartbreaking.
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An in-depth report by News Tribune staff writer Debbie Cafazzo last weekend showed how a cluster of alarmed families and coaches in Washington and around the country wants to overturn the industry standard of ground-up tire pellets as a safe playing surface. Among the crumb-rubber skeptics is Tacoma School Board member Scott Heinze, who has said switching to other field materials might be advisable even if it costs more.
The sad story of former Stadium High School student Luke Beardemphl is unnerving to any parent whose child has played years of organized sports on artificial turf, rolling or running through rooster tails of tiny, petroleum-based black pellets that lodge in clothes, eyes, ears and mouths.
Beardemphl, a standout goalkeeper, earned a college soccer scholarship but gave it up after a cancer diagnosis. He died last year at age 24, succumbing to the Hodgkin's lymphoma he fought hard for seven years.
Luke’s mother, Stephanie, wants experts to fully study and take action on crumb rubber “sooner rather than later.”
Tacoma School Superintendent Carla Santorno agrees on the need for diligent next steps. The News Tribune story compelled her to write a letter last week seeking guidance from the secretary of the Washington Department of Health.
“Would you be able to provide me with your best, most up-to-date advice on the health risks associated with crumb rubber athletic fields and whether school districts should continue to invest in this alternative?” Santorno wrote.
For the moment, the opinion of state health authorities, based on available research, is that crumb rubber likely doesn’t pose a “significant public health risk.” But the Environmental Protection Agency and two other federal agencies acknowledge “important data gaps” and announced a major research initiative in February.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission went so far as to recant its previous endorsement of crumb rubber. It now recommends materials such as shredded mulch and pea gravel for public playgrounds and backyards.
For Tacoma and hundreds of other school and park districts around the region and country, crumb rubber offers a low-maintenance, environmentally friendly and comfortable playing surface. Maintaining grass fields for year-round activity doesn’t work well, due to the soggy Northwest weather.
Using shredded rubber is also cost-effective, and Tacoma Public Schools has a fiduciary responsibility to complete projects from its massive 2013 bond package on time and within budget.
But the district has a greater responsibility for the health and safety of 29,000 students. When the federal research is complete — a summary of findings is expected by the end of this year — district leaders must be ready to act on any red flags as promptly as they did during this year’s drinking water crisis.
That means spending whatever it takes to replace any identified hazards.
They could start now by planning to ask bidders to price and consider alternative field materials, such as coconut shells, cork and rice hulls, to see how expensive these installations would be. (Bids elsewhere suggest it could cost tens of thousands more dollars for an organic field that doesn’t hold up as long.)
They should follow through on plans for a pilot project experimenting with a surface of alternate materials. And they should closely monitor the performance and durability of South Kitsap High School’s new turf field that’s padded with organic infill.
Families, meanwhile, can look out for their own interests with a strict regimen of hand and uniform washing, cleaning out scrapes and cuts, and leaving sports equipment outside.
Similar precautions were part of the toxic heritage of the Asarco smelter, which deposited a layer of contaminants around the Puget Sound. Washington is still closing the book on years of expensive remediation of parks, fields and playgrounds.
Let’s hope crumb rubber doesn’t become the sequel.