PFAS in turf fields raises safety concerns

By Anna Popnikolova, assistant editor-in-chief

Last Tuesday, February 8th, the school committee met for a workshop meeting, to discuss plans for the inset of artificial turf in NPS campus fields as an aspect of the Campus Master Plan. The workshop concerned the involvement of the chemical PFAS—polyfluoroalkyl substances, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—as well as others, in the turf designated for installation. The issue has been discussed for weeks prior to the meeting, with information coming from many different organizations across the island. The story was covered multiple times by various news sources leading up to the workshop, which served as a discussion space for parties supporting and opposing the artificial turf plans, and for the members of the committee as well as the general public to get educated on the matter. 

The meeting was sponsored by the committee and included speakers from the Nantucket PFAS Action Group, who were chosen to speak on the issue. These speakers most prominently included Kristen Mello, analytical chemist, PFAS activist, and city councilmember of Westfield, MA, and Dr. Kyla Bennett, Director of Northeast and Mid-American PEER, with a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Connecticut. Other guests included Dr. Graham Peaslee, Heather Whitehead, Courtney Carigan, Jamie Dewitt, and Ayesha Khan Barber. On the other side, Marie Rudiman, a toxicologist and risk assessor, and Steve Larosa, hydrogeologist, both from Weston & Sampson Inc, a civil engineering company that was hired to assess the implementation of the fields. Rudiman and Larosa were brought in from the athletic department to represent the master plan’s team and to answer questions about the project.

Larosa started off the statements supporting the placement of the artificial turf on school grounds, saying that samples were taken from the current state of the fields and, “they found that a number of soluble PFAS in the soil at concentrations that are around what we would expect to see in the background of the environment.” The terms “background levels” and “background concentrations” when used to describe the amounts of PFAS measured both in the regular soil and the artificial turf after testing was utilized multiple times by the Weston & Sampson representatives throughout the course of the workshop. The professionals brought in by the island’s PFAS Action Group, however, argued that PFAS, specifically types of PFAS like PFOA, cannot exist in background levels and that there is “no safe amount” of PFAS in the environment. The only safe amount of the so-called “forever chemicals” in the environment is none. 

From early in the meeting, it was noted that the workshop was purely educational and members of the committee would not be voting on the master plan at that time. All decisions on the master plan are to come up at town meeting, where it will be voted on. As the discussion began, Dr. Peaslee, professor at Notre Dame and PFAS researcher, explained that the means of production for the artificial turf require the use of chemicals containing PFAS, calling them “forever chemicals”.

On the plastic makeup of the turf, and the involvement of polyfluoroalkyl substances in its production, Peaslee stated, “in order to extrude the leaves that are used for the blades of grass, those are types of what’s called low-density polyethylene. It’s a polymer, like the grocery bags; the plastic grocery bags, except they’re tinted green and they’re made to look like leaves.” It is worth noting that Nantucket has a ban on single-use disposable plastic grocery bags for environmental purposes. For the leaves in the turf to be shaped correctly, the machinery is usually assisted by something called a “polymer processing aide,” which recently has been confirmed to Peaslee and his researchers as something containing PFAS chemicals.

The difficulties for researchers came from the confidentiality barriers between manufacturers and the release of information to the public. “There are 650 PFAS that are currently… being used in the US, but, of those 650 PFAS, 96% are confidential business information. We do not know the chemical formula, we do not know the toxicity information, we don’t know where it’s manufactured, we don’t know what it’s used for, we know nothing. Because it’s confidential business information.” Bennett explained, expressing her frustrations with the industry and the situation that, she thinks, places communities in unsafe situations, not knowing exactly what is contained inside the materials they are putting into their ground.

The worries from the lack of information on the PFAS content of products, like the hypothetical field turf, also came from the chemically permanent nature of the PFAS substances. Peaslee conveyed to the audience and committee that he and other researchers, “think that the plastics industry and the turfgrass industry in particular, is a very large user of this particular type of fluoropolymer… in the individual field, is it going to absolutely kill everything around it? Absolutely not.. but they’re forever chemicals. Once they come off, they will stay into your water supply, and Nantucket has a precious one.”

This opened the grounds for one of the evening’s more popular discussion topics: PFAS contamination in Nantucket’s aquifer. Because Nantucket’s water is supplied from what is called a “sole-source aquifer”, meaning that it supplies at least 50% of the drinking water in an area, the state of Nantucket’s drinking water is a critical topic. If our aquifer became contaminated, Nantucket would have to turn to alternative methods like shipping in bottled water. Experts through the course of the meeting voiced many concerns for contamination through groundwater.

Bennett raised concerns further by sharing an experience with groundwater contamination from PFAS in turf, which she experienced in her own town in Connecticut. “There was a municipality that had a contract that said no PFAS. And they measured before, and they measured after, and the PFAS doubled after the turf field was put in.” She explained that it had been difficult to prove that the PFAS in the water had come from the turf field, though remarked that, “it seems obvious.” 

The possibility of turf installation and then a situation arising where the placed turf then must be removed from the fields was discussed. Bennett reminded the meeting that the planning committee didn’t have a “Plan B”. She continued, warning the committee that, “once you’ve opened that barn door, and the horse is out, it’s very hard to get it back in.” On this, Mello also spoke up, furthering the point that PFAS is a real concern in the community, and a threat to some of the already-exposed drinking water resources: “When you’re considering the area of this carpet, and how much of it is going down, and the fact that you’ve already got one, and an airport, and a bunch of septic, you need to keep in mind that this stuff is cumulative. It’s not going anywhere, and every bit you bring onto the island is yours to keep.” She explained the way that the situation could escalate, and the potential need for removal of the turf could open up a lot of new issues for the island, especially for taxpayers. 

A lot of community members were left strongly opinionated after the meeting, and discussions across the island were sparked in light of the ever-growing PFAS issue. The Nantucket Fire Department released a statement about their views on the matter, which was held out at the door at the committee meeting and published through a few news sources the following day. The letter expressed the feelings of the firefighters, who have a long institutional history of PFAS involvement; PFAS in the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that firefighters wear equipment causing firefighter cancer deaths at higher rates than actual fires.

“We are alarmed,” the letter read, “that Nantucket Public Schools has made a push to advocate for several artificial turf fields.” The statement continues to explain the ways that PFAS affected and continues to affect firefighters across the country, and the disappointment felt by the department at the committee planning the fields, for an act they consider to be placing the island at direct, avoidable risk: “It is an insult to the members of Professional Fire Fighters Local 2509 and everyone who has worked ceaselessly to eliminate PFAS to have our school system even consider a toxic turf field. We are asking that Nantucket make the decision to turn off the PFAS tap whenever and wherever there is a safe alternative.” This statement was followed by one released by the Nantucket Land Council, and has caused many organizations on island to “pick a side” in the massive PFAS dispute. 

In the coming weeks, more events have been scheduled including an informational webinar through Nantucket Cottage Hospital and more, for the public to become better educated on the subject. Some believe that the Campus Wide Master Plan may have a better chance of getting funding without the ask for artificial turf fields. Some believe that better alternatives for the state of the playing fields exist, and should be considered. Others believe that the levels of PFAS in the turf field are acceptable. The subject will be voted on at the town meeting in the Spring.

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