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Are Montgomery County synthetic turf fields safe for play?

Photo of football field at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., where safety concerns have been raised about the turf. Monday, Sept. 5, 2016. (ABC7 photo)

Concussions, fractured skulls, broken bones, even death: these are the concerns a trio of civic organizations have raised about the synthetic turf field at Walter Johnson High School.

In April 2010, Montgomery County Public Schools had a faux grass field installed at the school located roughly half a mile east of the Montgomery Mall. However, over time, activists contend the synthetic grass has shed, effectively reducing the once thick green blades to short stubble.

"The shredding gives way to harder blows," said Janis Sartucci, a longtime member of the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County. “We need these blades to be tall and strong and stand up so they will hold the depth of crumb rubber so these guys can fall and bounce as opposed to fall and hit stone. Unfortunately, this field is no longer safe."

Earlier this year, the Parents' Coalition of Montgomery County, Montgomery County Civic Federation and Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition joined forces in an attempt to expose the alleged dangers of MCPS' portfolio of synthetic fields.

The groups recently obtained a July 11, 'G-MAX Test and Field Inspection Report' conducted at Walter Johnson by a company named Athletic Field Consultants, Inc. The testing, which involved dropping calibrated equipment onto different parts of the field, measured the field's shock absorbency. In total, the company performed 30 drops, generating levels between 141.25 and 196.05. The overall field average was 176.44. For context, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has stated that anything above a 200 is critically dangerous. Additionally, the National Football League (NFL) requires professional teams keep their fields below a G-MAX level of 165.

"196 is only four points from 200, and 200 can cause death," said Bailey Condrey, a member of the Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition. "Montgomery County continues to assure everyone that their fields are safe in spite of the data, which brings that into stark question."

Yet, MCPS officials maintain that the field is safe. Spokesman Derek Turner says Walter Johnson's field meets the industry standard for G-MAX testing, set by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Additionally, contractors test playing fields annually, recommending improvements, such as adding crumb rubber infill, when safety issues arise. General sweeping and cleaning to remove objects such as dirt, leaves, bird droppings, gum and other debris is also regularly conducted.

"Artificial turf fields have a significant benefit for our schools and community. They provide pesticide-free, high-quality professional level playing and practice fields; allow safe, year-round use under most weather conditions; require less maintenance; and their durability allows for greater use for academic programs and instruction," Turner said in a written statement. "We will continue to monitor our fields throughout the year to ensure our fields remain safe, maintained, and in compliance with industry standards."

Condrey and Sartucci say they plan to request all future G-MAX test results gathered at MCPS properties in effort to monitor developing conditions.

“It is overplayed, it is unsafe, it needs to be fixed," Condrey remarked while standing beside the WJ track and field. “Concussions, accidental breaking of bones, the tearing out of knees, these are all very real concerns."

Currently, artificial turf is in use at Gaithersburg High School, Montgomery Blair High School, Paint Branch High School, Richard Montgomery High School, Thomas S. Wootton High School and Walter Johnson High School. Montgomery Blairs' field, however, is owned and operated by the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission. This month, Somerset Elementary School will unveil a new synthetic field of its own. It's a pilot project utilizing PureFill - an organic cork and sand mixture infill mix, as opposed to the rubber infill that has raised safety concerns.

It is unclear how many athletes, if any, have been injured as a result of issues with MCPS' synthetic turf fields. Activists have been unable to obtain such data and MCPS has not released it.


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