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New Turf Fields Bring Improvements Along With Concerns

NEW ARTIFICIAL TURF at Falls Church’s Larry Graves Park should help mitigate the effects of inclement weather, but not all see the updated surface as an improvement. (Photo: News-Press)

New artificial turf has been installed at Larry Graves Park, replacing the natural grass field where bad weather contributed to game delays and cancellations. City officials hope the revamped surface will be more durable to the climate as well as to its users, but the installation wasn’t well received by all.

The park’s synthetic surface was a joint effort between Fairfax County and the City of Falls Church. As early as 2005 the Fairfax County Park Authority and the City’s Recreation and Parks department began to notice the maintenance required to keep the field intact wasn’t viable long-term. Plans and then funding to follow through with the redesign came a decade-plus later, with the unveiling in September.

Adam Roy, a volunteer youth soccer coach who penned a Letter to the Editor in last week’s News-Press, was happy about the new turf. He believes it gives the team he coaches an even surface to play on and will help avoid serious injury. Roy said any potential problems with the turf weren’t concerning enough to keep his own kids off it.

Removing her children from the surface is an internal debate for fellow park user, Jessica Labukas.

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“They’re many layers to this,” Labukas, who also penned a Letter to the Editor in this week’s News-Press, said in an interview. “It’s not just the carcinogenic chemicals, but [the field] also holds a lot of heat. I feel like there are more questions than answers when it comes to the field’s safety.”

The carcinogenic chemicals is a reference to the turf’s use of crumb rubber as infill, which comes from decomposed tires. Dibenzopyrenes are a known carcinogen in tires, with other toxic materials such as lead and petroleum products found in them as well.

Labukas said other parents she’s talked to are “shaking their heads” over the decision. She recollected about a recent soccer game her son played in, who’s in kindergarten, where he had the crumbs on his body and in his mouth.

Josh Mazen, in a letter to the News-Press last week, echoed Labukas’s concerns.

“Now we have a plastic field that heats up like an oven in the sun, vaporizing unknown chemicals into the air,” Mazen wrote. “On top of that, we’ve pelletized car tires and strewn them across the field, allowing them to hitch rides each day in our children’s shoes, hair, and clothing.”

Danny Schlitt, the City’s Recreation and Parks director, said that assessing the turf fields for safety was a focal point of the approval process. This concern stemmed from a national story about an assistant soccer coach at the University of Washington who alleged the crumb rubber was a cancer agent after witnessing multiple players she knew, as well as her own son, be diagnosed with various forms of cancer.

A study by the U of W, however, found no link between the fields and cancer. Locally, studies conducted by Fairfax County, which has roughly 70 turf fields countywide and helped influence the City’s process, determined that “the concerns about increased risk of negative health effects due to the chemicals in crumb rubber turf fields have not been substantiated in the scientific literature.”

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“If there was a thought that this wasn’t a safe product it wouldn’t have happened. It’s been through a lot vetting by the City Council,” Schlitt said.

Schlitt adds that natural grass fields can only take up to 75 hours of hard use before bumps and bare patches begin to show up. With 65 teams from primarily youth soccer and lacrosse leagues using Larry Graves as a practice and competition site for the fall, the field could deteriorate to unsteady conditions in a month’s time. Schlitt also mentioned that he spoke with field experts about alternatives other than crumb rubber at a recent conference, and they noted that some serious flaws have been found in them as it relates to athletic injuries.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new field will be held at Larry Graves Park (308 Hillwood Ave., Falls Church) on Oct. 5 at 10 a.m.

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