Voters in San Francisco and the New Jersey borough of Glen Rock rendered a split decision on synthetic turf playing fields at the ballot box Tuesday amid speculation about whether playing on the “crumb-rubber” fields may have unforeseen health consequences.
San Francisco voters rejected Local Measure H, which would have prevented the city from replacing natural grass fields with artificial turf and lights in the western reaches of Golden Gate Park, 54 percent to 46 percent.
Instead, they overwhelmingly approved Local Measure I, which instructs the city to go ahead with the $16 million project, which has been on the drawing board for six years. Eighty percent of voters approved the measure, while 20 percent voted “no.”
Public sentiment swung the other way in Glen Rock, New Jersey, where voters turned down plans to install an artificial turf field at Faber Field, with 72 percent opposing the project and 28 percent in favor.
Keith Verkem, a Glen Rock resident and parent who voted against the measure, said that he believed cost played a bigger role than questions about potential health impacts in the measure’s defeat.
“There were more ‘no’ votes based on the financial piece. I think that played a bigger part than any of the other stuff,” he said. “The environmental concerns and safety concerns were definitely numbers two and three, that’s for sure. But it came down to money.”
That view was shared by Michael Stewart, a parent who supported the artificial turf project.
“I’m extremely disappointed," he said. "I think the large majority of people who voted ‘no’ mostly voted ‘no’ because they didn’t want to pay the extra taxes. I think a smaller portion of the people were swayed by the NBC health concern pieces. I don’t think it was the major reason people voted ‘no’ but it definitely brought it into the consciousness of people.”
As NBC News reported last month, concerns about potential long-term health effects from playing on artificial turf fields containing crumb rubber have been fueled by anecdotal reports of cancer among soccer players – especially goalies.
Many health experts and backers of the fields, which use ground up automobile tires in the cushion, say all evidence collected so far by scientists and state and federal agencies has shown that artificial turf is safe.
Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Product Safety Commission also have conducted “limited” studies that found no increased health risks.
But some pediatricians, scientists and advocacy groups believe more research is needed on the crumb rubber fields, which make up the majority of the more than 11,000 synthetic turf sports fields in the U.S.
Following the exclusive NBC News report, plans to install crumb rubber synthetic turf have been reversed at a city stadium in Ocean City, New Jersey, and at a Catholic high school in Burien, Washington. Officials in both cases cited concerns about possible health risks as an important factor in the decisions and said that more health studies should be done.
In a response to NBC News report, the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry trade group, said that more than 60 studies have been conducted over two decades and that none has found any negative health impact from playing on the fields.
“The preponderance of evidence shows no negative health effects associated with crumb rubber in synthetic turf,” it said. “As NBC factually reported, "there is no research directly linking crumb rubber to cancer."
Hannah Rappleye contributed to this report.