By Kevin Monahan, Hannah Rappleye and Stephanie Gosk
On a recent summer afternoon Jon Damm, a lacrosse coach, stood on an artificial turf field across the street from his home in Fairfax County, Virginia, wishing that his children could play on it. But Damm knew that was not going to happen.
Jon and his wife Laura, both environmental lawyers, have decided that the bits of pulverized rubber tires nestled in the fake grass under his feet pose a health risk to their two young children.
“We don’t feel comfortable having our kids on the fields,” Damm said. “Which is heartbreaking for me, as a lacrosse player and coach, because that really makes it difficult to pass on the sport that I love.”
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The debate over whether crumb rubber turf is safe for children to play on is continuing across the country. In the absence of clear federal guidance or what critics of turf consider definitive scientific studies, parents and municipalities across the country are deciding the issue on their own, cobbling together available research and lobbying for regulatory legislation.
“This is 20 to 30,000 ground-up tires on these fields that are not being regulated in any way at this point,” said Laura Damm. “Once you grind them up and put them on the fields, nobody’s looking out for this stuff.”
Perhaps nowhere is that debate more apparent than in Fairfax County, Virginia and Montgomery County, Maryland. The two suburbs of Washington, D.C. are separated only by the Potomac River and have similar affluent, educated populations of just over 1 million. But the way leaders have approached the debate over crumb rubber safety is markedly different.
“I really feel the federal government has failed local governments in this way,” said Roger Berliner, a member of Montgomery’s county council. “I’ve seen their statements that this is a local government decision. Well, how is Montgomery County going to assess the scientific data associated with carcinogenic effects of crumb rubber?”
The EPA has said more testing needs to be done, and that for now, decisions about turf are a local and state matter. The agency has declined repeated requests from NBC News for an interview with Administrator Gina McCarthy.
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Last year, a group of parents brought similar concerns about crumb rubber to Fairfax County officials. Recreational sports like soccer and baseball are popular in Fairfax, and the county currently has 84 crumb rubber artificial turf fields.
The group asked county officials to consider installing grass fields or alternatives to crumb rubber, such as organic infill made of cork, and rice and coconut husk.
In 2012 county officials examined available research and concluded that it showed crumb rubber to be safe. When they revisited the research, they said, they came to the same conclusion.
“The county’s decision to allow the use of crumb rubber as infill for synthetic fields is based on extensive review of peer-reviewed scientific papers conducted by state and national organizations over the past decade,” Tony Castrilli, director of public affairs for Fairfax County, told NBC News in a statement. “The papers generally concluded that exposure to the levels of chemicals found in these fields do not pose a serious public health concern.”
The county had come to the same conclusion as the turf industry, which can point to many studies that don’t support a link to any illness. No studies have demonstrated any health risk associated with exposure to crumb rubber turf.
Critics of turf, however, say that none of the tests have examined the effect on children of prolonged exposure to turf, which some experts say would be necessary to assess risk.
Fairfax County’s decision left Jon Damm frustrated. “All these other counties are taking prudent, reasonable measures to use less risky material,” Damm said.
Just across the river, officials in Montgomery County did the opposite and voted in an outright ban on publicly funded crumb rubber turf fields this spring. Today, public funding can be used only for natural grass or synthetic fields with alternative infill.
“The future in Montgomery County is organic fields,” Berliner said. “We have turned the page on crumb rubber. Let’s put that behind us, and move forward into a totally safe and concussion-free, and heat island-free, environment for our children. So we can have great playability, and none of those worries.”
While leaders in Fairfax County say the research proved turf to be safe, officials in Montgomery County, who also analyzed research, decided it didn’t. “All we could do is take a look at the literature that exists,” Berliner said. “And that literature comes back and says it’s not conclusive.”
A synthetic field made of an alternative substance in the Montgomery County city of Gaithersburg also inspired the legislation, Berliner said.
Last year, Gaithersburg leaders decided to install a synthetic field with organic infill after a steady stream of soccer and baseball players rendered their grass field nearly unusable.
It’s the first municipally-owned, organic-infill artificial turf field on the East Coast, said Michele Potter, director of parks, recreation and culture for Gaithersburg.
The decision to go with organic infill — a mixture of rice and coconut fibers and recycled cork — was an easy one, Potter said. Its soft, reduces heat and allows for many more hours of play than grass. “There were really no concerns on behalf of staff and mayor and council with this product,” she said. The alternative turf is, however, more expensive than crumb rubber.
“Every time I come out here I’m really pleased with the decision that was made,” Potter added. “When you drive up, the field looks real, with blades of grass and dirt. And then you step on it, and it feels real.”
Kevin Monahan is a producer for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Rappleye is a reporter with the Investigative Unit at NBC News, covering immigration, criminal justice and human rights issues.
Stephanie Gosk is an NBC News correspondent based in New York City. She contributes to “Nightly News with Lester Holt,” “TODAY” and MSNBC.