City creates working group after 16 public fields fail safety test

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The athletic field at Wilson High School was among more than a dozen in D.C. schools and parks to undergo emergency repairs. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)
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Synthetic fields at 16 D.C. public parks and schools were abruptly shuttered last month after failing tests to measure shock absorption, officials said last Wednesday after months of silence on the issue.

The issue began in March and April of this year, when Janney Elementary School failed a shock absorption “g-max” test conducted by FieldTurf. Then, according to a Sept. 20 news release from the Department of General Services, officials hired a third-party manufacturer to retest all 52 fields in D.C. — all but one of which had passed the agency’s prior tests. In July, the contractor reported that 16 fields were insufficiently absorbent, increasing the risk of injury to players.

To reassess its field testing process, the General Services Department formed an interagency working group that’s slated to report its recommendations early next year.

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Most of the 16 shuttered sites have reopened after repairs, including fields at Janney, Mann and Ross elementaries; Wilson and McKinley high schools; Upshur Park; and Jelleff Recreation Center.

Meanwhile, Brightwood Education Campus’ field is still undergoing repairs, and fields are being replaced at Eaton Elementary and the Adams campus of Oyster-Adams Bilingual School. All three are slated to reopen the second week of October.

In an interview, Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh expressed frustration that the General Services Department failed to communicate with the council or the public about the field closures. Cheh said she was alerted about the closures in her ward by constituents rather than agency officials — despite repeated requests for information over some months.

An agency official declined to comment beyond the department’s news release.

In a separate matter, some concerns are being raised over the use of crumb rubber, a recycled material used in many District fields. While claims of crumb rubber’s harmfulness are not backed by current findings of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, officials conceded that there are data gaps, and the agency is currently conducting a multi-agency study to further assess the effects of the material.

Cheh successfully pushed her council colleagues to include a moratorium on crumb rubber in the fiscal year 2018 budget, which takes effect Oct. 1.

“We have to ensure that our children are safe at school,” Cheh wrote in August. “Questions have been raised about the danger of using crumb rubber on fields and, until those questions are resolved, we have to err on the side of health and safety.”

According to National Center for Health Research director Diana Zuckerman, crumb rubber contains some level of toxicity, and its effects are nearly impossible to evaluate. “Would you want your children to be exposed to those chemicals for a few hours a day, day after day, week after week, year after year?” Zuckerman wrote in an email.

Michael Peterson, a toxicologist at environmental consulting firm Gradient and a scientific adviser to makers of the recycled rubber and synthetic turf, countered that humans come into contact with various chemicals every day. “The presence of chemicals in a substance does not necessarily imply a health risk,” he wrote in an email. “Because exposures are low there are generally no reasons for health concerns.”

This post has been updated to replace a photo that was unrelated to this story.