To the Editor:
Wilton has an invaluable treasure that’s hiding in plain sight to many residents — and it’s now under serious threat by a well-meaning but misguided plan.
First of all — the treasure? I’m speaking of Allen’s Meadow, where children safely play sports and learn about nature; gardeners cultivate; runners run; walkers ramble, often with their canine companions; birders enjoy the abundant birdlife; Goetzen Brook meanders; bluestem grass and native plant meadows are returning; spring ephemeral flowers carpet adjoining slopes in early spring; bobcats can be glimpsed sometimes roosting high up in trees; and owls can be heard hooting from the woodland bordering Olmstead Hill Rd. A particular highlight — as winter retreats each year, American woodcocks can be counted on to offer an early evening spectacle, performing their aerial acrobatics above the playing fields.
Hiding in plain sight? That’s because often those availing themselves of Allen’s Meadow see only the thing that drew them there in the first place. The fact that so many different people, of different ages, enjoying different pursuits, are all doing it side by side, and in relatively peaceful coexistence with each other — and the natural world — may be lost on many.
The serious threat? There is a plan afoot to install an artificial turf field, which would not only seriously interrupt the equilibrium we currently enjoy by creating an extensive plastic dead zone but also introduce new environmental hazards and create health and safety concerns for those the field is intended to serve. Will we continue to see Woodcocks sporting over plastic grass?
There are so many reasons not to pour the Town’s limited resources into a new artificial turf field, but with limited space, I’ll offer just a few highlights — or rather “lowlights”…
- Cost: the initial outlay to install an artificial turf field will be in the range of $2 million and it will last a decade or less. While artificial turf is often promoted as low maintenance and therefore lower cost in the long term, reality doesn’t bear that out. And when turf fields aren’t maintained, safety becomes an issue.
- Speaking of maintenance: artificial turf requires significant cost and effort, both of which tend to be underestimated. As a result, artificial turf is often not maintained properly. That failure isn’t just an aesthetic issue; according to a September 2022 Boston Globe article there’s “a hazard that has received little attention: head injuries from hitting the surface of an artificial turf that lost some of its shock absorbency, either from age or lack of maintenance.”
- Injuries: lower body injuries, turf burns, turf toe, head injuries. There’s a reason the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the NFL Players Association oppose artificial turf. A 2021 paper published in Current Orthopaedic Practice concluded that “Athletes were 58% more likely to sustain an injury on artificial turf. Football, soccer, and rugby athletes were at a significantly greater injury risk on artificial turf. Upper and lower extremity and torso injuries also occurred with higher incidence on artificial turf.”
- Other health issues: to name only a few: playing on artificial turf can lead to turf burn and skin abrasions caused by sliding on artificial turf, and that in turn leads to a higher risk of infection, including MRSA infections. Skin abrasions also increase the risk of harmful chemical absorption. Then there’s the issue of inhalation of chemical substances from degrading turf materials.
- “Forever chemicals” is the nickname for the hazardous PFAs chemicals that are present in all artificial turf. (And no, eliminating tire crumb infill does not eliminate PFAs.) They are linked to a host of health problems, including cancer, lowered immunity, reproductive issues, etc., and are easily drained into waterways and groundwater. Allen’s abuts the Norwalk River and is over an aquifer. PFAs chemicals are the main reason Boston recently banned the installation of artificial turf in city parks. And Boston is just one of a growing number of municipalities across the country that are limiting or prohibiting its use. In fact, a bill has just been introduced to the CT legislature that would prohibit municipalities from purchasing and installing artificial turf fields because of the harm they cause to the environment and human health.
To quote Dr. Sarah Evans, an environmental health professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, from the Boston Globe article, “We already know there are toxic chemicals in the products, so why would we continue to utilize them and have children roll around on them when we have a safe alternative, which is natural grass?”
- Microplastics: At a time when we have awakened to the environmental and human risk of microplastics, does it make sense to continue to invest in and use a significant source of them? A study in Sweden has found that artificial turf fields are likely the second-highest contributor of microplastics into waterways. And microplastics contain PFAs chemicals to boot.
- Disposal: The lifespan of an artificial turf field is around eight-to-10 years at best. Where does old artificial turf go when it dies? Municipalities are facing “a massive disposal problem … when removing aging synthetic-turf installations,” according to a December 2019 Atlantic article, “The Dangerous Pileup of Artificial Turf.” The article goes on to report that “Separating the constituent parts to recycle this polymer sandwich is nearly impossible and almost never done, by default leaving gigantic heaps of it piled up in a landfill—where it may continue to deposit microplastics into the soil and water for the foreseeable future.” To date, there are no artificial turf recycling facilities in the US.
- Heat islands: When our planet is in the midst of an existential global warming crisis, does it make sense to install heat island generators? Artificial turf is made of several heat-retaining materials which not only increase field surface temperature but also significantly increase air temperature. This contributes in turn to an increased risk of heat-related illnesses and injuries among athletes when the weather is hot, particularly among young children who are more susceptible to extreme heat.
There are a lot of facts to weigh and consequences to consider — I have only glossed over the surface. And I haven’t even addressed issues related to installing a seasonal bubble on top. Just because the state lease will allow artificial turf does not mean the Town of Wilton should install more of it.
I hope the Town and our residents will do the right thing: step back and seriously weigh the costs — financial, health, safety, and environmental — against any potential benefits. Do we really want to jump on the artificial turf bandwagon, or should we work to preserve a local treasure and protect our community and our environment?
Board Member, Norwalk River Watershed Association