Petition circulates against artificial turf in two Carmel Valley parks

In light of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board approving the installation of artificial turf at Carmel Valley and Ocean Air Community Parks, Dr. Emily Engel, a neurologist at the Scripps Clinic and mother of two boys at Ocean Air School, has gathered 177 signatures to oppose placement of the turf.

“There are multiple health concerns that really alarm me,” Engel said.

She said the speculation about toxin exposure in artificial turf hasn’t been definitively proven, but there is enough research that people can be exposed to lead and other toxic chemicals for the city to pause on the installation. As a neurologist, she said she has never dealt with the effects of artificial turf directly, but she does see toxin-induced neurological problems and they’re not treatable. She wants to protect the community’s kids.

“It’s a dirty carpet,” Engel said of the turf, noting it can harbor MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and growing bacteria, especially in public parks.

“It has to be cleaned regularly with water and anti-microbial soaps, and we know antibiotic exposure can lead to antibiotic resistance,” Engel said. “All of that goes into the surrounding ecosystem, which is bad for the environment.”

Engel said the turf also gets very hot in direct sunlight and can cause burns. Some research suggests the turf makes athletes more vulnerable to injuries.

She also has big concerns about the crumb rubber granules that are added to the synthetic grass carpet to hold it in place. The rubber is composed of ground-up old tires containing toxins, lead and other dangerous chemicals that can be easily inhaled, absorbed or eaten.

“There is enough negative information; it’s really terrible. It shouldn’t happen at all,” Engel said.

In June, the planning board approved the upgrades at the two parks using Facilities Benefit Assessment funds. The Carmel Valley project is estimated at $3.6 million for the two upper fields; the proposed project at Ocean Air is estimated at $ 5.7 million.

The Carmel Valley Recreation Council had made the recommendation for artificial turf, as it provides a more consistent and level playing surface that does not require irrigation, fertilization or landscaping. Turf also provides year-round use with no down time for renovation and can support heavier use, allowing for additional programming at two of the area’s busiest parks.

Kathryn Ruiz, city parks and recreation department deputy director, said they have received feedback similar to Engel’s from other area families regarding their concerns.

Ruiz said the desire to replace natural turf with synthetic turf has been longstanding by many athletic user groups as well as the recreation council. It was not solely in response to drought-related irrigation restrictions, Ruiz said, although it is a beneficial choice given the drought conditions.

The recommendation to spend the funds must be approved by the City Council and will probably come before them for consideration in the fall. Upon council approval, design and construction will take about four years, with an estimated completion date of late 2019.

“All of the products we use in our facilities undergo rigorous review and testing, and we would never place a material that was conclusively found to be harmful in our parks,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz said the synthetic turf installed in city parks would meet or exceed federal, state and local health requirements.

“The city holds public safety paramount when considering the type and quality of the equipment it selects for all city facilities,” she said, noting that per the Consultant’s Guide to Park Design and Development, manufacturers are required to fully disclose all materials used and provide complete information on all potential toxins.

In regard to the crumb rubber, a city report noted that alternative infill materials are being developed, such as coconut fiber and cork or resin-coated silica sand. The newer materials show promise in addressing some concerns associated with crumb rubber infill, and the parks and recreation department will continue to evaluate those materials as they are developed and tested.

All three Carmel Valley high schools — Torrey Pines, Canyon Crest Academy and Cathedral Catholic — have artificial turf fields.

Engel remains unconvinced that the turf is the best option for the community.

“Even if they use a ‘healthier version,’ it’s still not right,” she said. “I don’t feel like they are listening to the concerns of the community.”