By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
PETALUMA — No immediate changes appear in store for a new synthetic-turf field planned for Casa Grande High School, despite health concerns raised by a handful of parents during a special Petaluma City Schools board meeting Wednesday night.
Board members and the district’s superintendent received a progress report on the project and heard from its designers and the turf company about potential alternatives to what kind of topping would go on the fake-grass athletic field.
Turf fields, most of which are covered with a recycled rubber crumb-like material, have come under increased scrutiny lately with questions about chemicals in the infill product — made from recycled tires — that could potentially be dangerous.
The five-member board (two members were absent Wednesday) wasn’t scheduled to take any action, nor did it set any further meetings to revisit its decision to use crumb rubber in the field that is currently under construction and set to open for play in October.
Board members did appear open to alternatives, though.
“We’ll certainly look at all the options,” said trustee Mike Baddeley.
Trustee Mary Schafer said she’d like to read more about the products. Troy Sanderson asked questions about the costs, safety and durability of rubber and other infill products.
Changing directions at this stage could cost several hundred thousand dollars, depending on the choices, said FieldTurf representative Andrew Rowley.
Using a cork infill instead of rubber, for example, would require changes to the substructure that is designed to absorb shock and facilitate drainage, he said.
About two dozen parents, coaches and observers attended the meeting. About a half-dozen raised their hands at the end of the meeting when asked if they were opposed to crumb rubber use.
Parent Brian Mifsud has rallied parents in an effort to get the district to revisit its decision to use crumb rubber.
Studies used by the state and the turf industry that show the rubber poses no health dangers are poorly conducted and inaccurate, he said.
“They are just generic tests,” he said. “To say that you’re not inhaling it, ingesting it and that there isn’t prolonged dermal contact is just silly.”
He said he and his wife are concerned about their son, an incoming sophomore at Casa, playing football on a crumb rubber field.
In March, the West Sonoma Union High School District reversed course on its long-planned crumb rubber infill choice after a small group of parents also raised safety concerns. The district, which oversees Analy and El Molino high schools, approved using a more expensive cork infill for its $8 million synthetic field overhaul.
Critics argued that because ground-up, recycled tires contain carcinogens, playing on the surface could pose health risks for young athletes.
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study that found no health hazards associated with playing sports on crumb rubber fields, but cautioned that no broad conclusions could be drawn from the study because its scope was limited.
In June, California authorized spending $2.9 million to study the health effects of recycled tires in turf fields. The state waste-reduction program CalRecycle will work with the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to study which chemicals may be released from crumb rubber and if they pose any dangers to children and adults using such fields.
The study will consider the effect of ingestion and inhalation of the rubber pellets in addition to skin exposure.
The issue before Petaluma’s school board comes in an era when most Petaluma school and community grass fields are being replaced with the more versatile, less thirsty, all-weather artificial turf surfaces — with no complaints or concerns raised until now.
Last year two of the city council’s environmentalist-backed candidates argued in favor of a turf field over a developer-backed natural grass field in a hotel and residential project planned along the Petaluma River.
Their arguments focused on water savings and lower maintenance costs of a turf surface over real grass. Ultimately, the council voted to allow the developer to install its preferred grass field.
Earlier last year, the council OK’d a six-field park on 26 acres of land near the municipal airport with artificial turf fields, again with no health concerns raised during its lengthy approval process.
At least nine Sonoma County high schools now have artificial turf fields, most with crumb-rubber infill, said Curt Nichols of Carlile Macy, the Casa project designers.
Eight out of 10 Marin County schools with synthetic turf fields use rubber.
You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @loriacarter.