NCHR Testimony to House Appropriations Committee Regarding Playground and Athletic Field Surfaces

Committee: House Appropriations Committee 

Testimony of Jack Mitchell regarding HB 505: “Use of Public Funds—Playground and Athletic Field Surfaces—Preferences and Prohibitions”

Position: Support

Hearing Date: February 8, 2018

Regarding: HB 505:  “Use of Public Funds—Playgrounds and Athletic Field Surfaces-Preferences and Prohibitions” Lead sponsor Delegate Aruna Miller, which will be heard in the House Appropriations Committee (Delegate Maggie L. McIntosh, Chairman; Delegate Tawanna P. Gaines, Vice Chair) on Thursday, February 8, 2018.


Good afternoon.  I’m Jack Mitchell, a resident of Silver Spring, Maryland for 33 years.  I’m the proud parent of a Montgomery County high school student, and a staffer for the Patient, Consumer, and Public Health Coalition representing two dozen non-profit public health organizations.  I previously worked as a senior executive for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to express my strong support for HB 505 “Use of Public Funds—Playgrounds and Athletic Field Surfaces—Preferences and Prohibitions”.

Companies that make and install synthetic turf on these types of surfaces maintain that it is proven safe and cost-effective compared to grass.  However, these materials are not required by any federal government agency to be proven safe.  I will explain why.

The two federal agencies with primary jurisdiction in this area, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, (CPSC), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have studied the safety of these products.  CPSC has held recent workshops with invited scientific and public health experts; but neither agency has declared these materials as safe for uses in playgrounds or athletic fields.  There are no federal safety tests required to prove these products are safe

Installation, maintenance and replacement of these fields’ materials can be costly.  Fields in the District of Columbia can cost half a million dollars or more.  Montgomery County learned that the comparative cost of artificial turf can be as much as almost 50% more than grass fields over twenty years’ duration.  According to published reports, Montgomery County Parks recently has joined a class action suit against the manufacturer of several of the County’s school synthetic fields, claiming that their durability was misrepresented.

There are safety issues in addition to cost and durability considerations.  One test at a Washington, D.C. school district revealed at outside temperatures in the mid-sixties, when the cement was 86 degrees and the grass 89 degrees, the artificial turf surface was above 130 degrees.  Nearly a dozen artificial and synthetic turf fields in the District of Columbia failed safety tests.

While the D.C. government did not identify which eleven of the 50 such fields in the city failed, a task order obtained by a concerned parents’ group showed that the District planned to replace four such fields at elementary schools in the District at a cost of nearly a million dollars, according to local news reports.

Another safety issue is how hard artificial turf fields become after a few years.  What are termed the “g-max” scores are utilized to measure surface hardness in various spots throughout the fields.  The National Football League uses a standard score of 156 G-Max for its various artificial turf fields before each game.  By comparison, the Synthetic Turf Council, the trade association for the synthetic turf industry, uses 165 g-max as the maximum standard.  The g-max scores must be satisfactory for each spot tested; not an overall field average.

During the past sixteen months, Blair High School in Montgomery County officials decided that they were unhappy with the excessive wear and tear on their synthetic field after less than a decade’s use.  Subsequent third-party testing showed that many spots on the field had unacceptably high g-max scores which could have led to injuries and even concussions.  When later repair measures did not suitably fix the problem, authorities decided to replace the surface.

The District of Columbia is using a standard g-max score of 200 as the indicator for field repair and replacement.  By that standard, many school fields in the District have scores well in excess of the industry standard of 165, but as far as we know, they are not presently scheduled for replacement or repair.

As a result, some of our children may be at risk playing on surfaces that have higher hardness scores than the synthetic playing fields in the NFL, where players are protected by pads, uniforms, and safety helmets.  As we know, concussions have understandably become a serious cause for concern in the sports world, and that should be a red flag to all of us, as well.

Kids can and have suffered abrasion burns on some of the fields, just as professional football players do.  MRSA and other bacteria can grow in these materials, risking dangerous, difficult-to-treat infections.

The public health experts with whom I work are also concerned about the rubber playground material used near swings, slides, and other playground equipment.  These rubber ground covers seem to provide a soft landing, but also become much harder over time.  They break up and small particles of colorful rubber look like candy and can end up in young children’s mouths.  Engineered wood fiber is a much safer alternative, and also is ADA-compliant.  It feels just as spongey as rubber and does not contain potentially dangerous chemicals.

In summary, as a parent, and a professional who works to improve public health, I appreciate the Committee’s close attention and legislative oversight of this important safety issue for our state’s children and their schools.  I thank you for your time and attention.