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Expert warns Mt. Lebanon about artificial turf issues

| Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A local public health expert warned Mt. Lebanon officials to look closely at chemicals in the artificial turf they plan to install on municipal playing fields, spurring commissioners to seek more information from four bidders.

Philip Johnson, a Mt. Lebanon resident, director of The Heinz Endowments' Environment Program and a Ph.D. in risk analysis and management, told commissioners this week that putting turf on Middle and Wildcat fields in Mt. Lebanon's Main Park raises questions about what chemicals would be involved in the installation, maintenance and long-term use of the turf.

He warned that children might be more vulnerable to those chemicals than adults because they are smaller, still developing in processes that chemical exposure can disrupt and have more time in their lifespans to develop chronic diseases as a result of chemicals.

“In general, societies do everything they can to minimize exposures for their youngest, most vulnerable children,” he said.

The chemical byproducts of artificial turf — typically plastic “grass” cushioned and held up by sand and crumb-rubber infill — depend largely on the exact type of turf, along with whether chemicals such as fire retardant, pesticides and disinfectants are used to maintain it, Johnson said.

The different products also could break down differently over time, releasing other chemicals into the environment.

“We don't know how significant these exposures will be until we know what's in these materials,” he said.

In response, Mt. Lebanon officials will go back to the four vendors who bid last week on the project, and ask them for a breakdown of the chemicals involved in the products they'll use — information that typically would not be disclosed until a contract is awarded, said Commissioner Dave Brumfield, part of the commission majority supporting the project.

He and Commissioner John Bendel, another turf supporter, noted that there are studies that do not find risks from artificial turf, while similar chemicals or worse are part of the environment already.

A contract could be awarded as soon as July 8.

Johnson said most studies can't be extrapolated to make conclusions about artificial turf in general, because of differences in their methodology and in the variety of turf products available.

“Every day we compare risks ... to make an informed decision,” he said. “The question becomes, does a turf field, and the chemicals in that turf, rise to the level of concern? I think that's a flag of warning, of caution, that we're introducing a new chemical pathway into the environment.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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