By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Corks may soon be popping up all over Sonoma County football fields. It’s not what that sounds like, exactly.
Casa Grande is now the third high school where athletes will play on turf lined with ground-up cork instead of rubber pellets, following the Petaluma school board’s vote Tuesday night to change the topping on the school’s planned new field after parents raised potential safety concerns.
Casa joins two other schools, Analy and El Molino from the West County School District, whose administrators have changed to cork infill over crumb rubber following’ complaints.
Petaluma High, which will have its field refurbished next year, will also now receive an alternative infill, superintendent Gary Callahan said Wednesday.
A number of local parents have joined forces to challenge schools as they move to replace old, thirsty, expensive-to-maintain natural grass fields with artificial turf.
Turf, which consists of a rock-and-sand foundation and a cushy rubber and plastic fake-grass surface, has become the go-to choice for schools and communities seeking more affordable and weather-resistant fields for football, soccer and lacrosse.
On top of and in between the bright green “grass” blades, manufacturers add a material for added cushion, comfort and durability. Most often, that topping is made from an otherwise difficult to recycle item – used vehicle tires. Some schools and communities have used the product for decades.
But in the past year or so, anecdotal data from coaches raised concerns about potential health hazards associated with playing on the rubber pellets or breathing in gases that may be given off.
In Petaluma, Casa’s $2.9 million field renovation originally included a turf field with a topping of crushed tire pellets, commonly called crumb rubber. But parents and others asked the board to reconsider.
Some believe the rubber filling, which contains various carcinogenic chemicals, can be hazardous after prolonged contact with athletes’ skin, or if potential minute particles are inhaled.
None of multiple studies on the product have proved health hazards, but concerns remain about the studies’ accuracy and objectivity. The state of California has agreed to conduct a more in-depth study into the issue.
School board members, while not acknowledging that the fields hurt kids, agreed that alternatives are prudent.
They supported a cork infill with a rock-and-sand base instead, adding another $132,000 to the project over the cost of the rubber and delaying completion for several weeks. Initially, the district planned to open the field in late October.
Although the field was already two months into construction, Callahan said board members felt the parents’ concerns warranted a change.
“The board certainly wasn’t saying those fields are dangerous, but they felt this was a more comfortable decision that the community can be comfortable with,” he said. “You have enough of a public concern about the health of their child that the cost of making the change did not justify ignoring those concerns.”
Brian Mifsud, a parent who led the challenge in Petaluma, said he was thrilled the board listened.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome,” he said. His son will play football this year at Casa.
Callahan said the cork is billed as anti-microbial and anti-allergenic, and repels pests and mold.
No word on whether Sonoma County wine drinkers will contribute to the recycled cork supply.
You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter @pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.