We spoke with Rochelle Rubinstein, visual artist and founder of No Toxic Turf. Rochelle is a concerned Torontonian who is leading a campaign to protect the health of students and the environment, and save natural fields from being replaced with artificial turf. We found out why this cause is so important to her, easy ways to make a positive difference in your community, and why you definitely want to keep your kids and pets away from artificial turf.
What’s the harm of artificial turf?
A lot. Anyone playing on the surface inhales and ingests toxins, carcinogens and hormone disrupting chemicals released from the crumb rubber infill. Temperatures on artificial turf fields reach dangerously high levels in the summer and can lead to heat exhaustion, even heat stroke. Carcinogens and toxins in artificial turf leach into our water. Athletes risk increased abrasions and staph infections. Tiny granules of toxic crumb rubber stick to athletes’ skin, clothing and shoes and are tracked into our streets and homes. Artificial turf made from tire waste is highly flammable. Children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to the health hazards of artificial turf; even more so in interior (domed) spaces. And every installation of artificial turf means the loss of precious green space.
Caroline Raffensburger, environmental lawyer, said there is an “….unexplained increase in the number of childhood tumors and diseases, which are the product of exposure to pollution. The law is presently unfair because it puts the burden of proof of toxicity entirely on the victim rather than making the burden of proof of safety on the manufacturer. There is often a long period of latency between exposure to dangerous substances and the appearance of symptoms when it is too late for treatment and cure. There is compelling evidence of the dangers of artificial turf and of the shredded scrap tire infill and the best practice is to avoid dangers, not put kids at risk and regret it later.”
Are there any benefits?
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) argues in favour of its artificial turf/ seasonal dome/privatization plan for the four acre field at Central Technical School, claiming their athletes deserve a ‘championship’ field available for use 24/7. I do sympathize with players who have to travel elsewhere to practise in bad weather…but, respectfully, soccer and football are not the only activities that happen on the field, and Canadian athletes and non-athletes alike have been playing successfully on natural fields, and in all sorts of weather, for a long time! The 24/7 argument pushed by artificial turf companies and the TDSB isn’t exactly accurate, as the temperatures on hot days make the crumb rubber infill so hot that athletes can get heat exhaustion, or even heat stroke, unless they are hosed down every twenty minutes. Also, it is not the artificial turf alone that makes playing 24/7 possible, but mainly the seasonal dome that covers the field. A very expensive dome, in which the toxicity of the off gassing is increased, making it dangerous, especially to children and adolescents.
Recent studies show that a main health problem for North American children and adolescents is that they don’t get enough free, unstructured time playing outside, in all kinds of weather and in fresh air – not domed spaces. The TDSB/Razor Management plan involves mainly structured activity for students during school hours and rental of the field to sports groups after school hours, and during weekends, summers, and holidays – which rules out free play and fun on the field for both students and families in the neighbourhood.
In any case, artificial turf surfaces are not pleasant to play on.
The other supposed benefit is that the turf is low maintenance, which is untrue (it needs to be cleaned regularly with lots of water and toxic chemicals; needs to be repaired when torn; and needs to be completely replaced every 7 to 10 years). The marketing trick of praising tire waste artificial turf for being ‘recycled’ makes it sound like it is good for the environment (while the opposite is true). When there are new blends of natural grass that are hardy, low-maintenance, requiring no pesticides or herbicides and very little water or mowing … doesn’t that just make more sense?
To quote Patti Wood, Director of Grassroots Environmental Education: “This crumb rubber is a material that cannot be legally disposed of in landfills or ocean-dumped because of its toxicity. Why on earth should we let our children play on it?”
So, I guess that means that, in my opinion, there are NO benefits of artificial turf.
So what are you doing to save our grassy fields?
For months after hearing about the TDSB/Razor Management artificial turf/80 ft. high seasonal dome/privatization plan for the 4 acre field at Central Technical School, I researched the health hazards of artificial turf, talked to neighbours about it to raise awareness, printed and distributed flyers, held meetings in my house etc.
Then came the creation of the website, NoToxicTurf.ca – at Lisa’s suggestion. This allows me to share this research and information with even more people, and to make it really easy for people to lend their own voice to the campaign by sending letters to Toronto Public Health, the Toronto District School Board, and local politicians. And engaging with the community on Facebook and Twitter helps spread the word, too. (We’re happy to help you spread the word so together as a community we can make the best decisions for us all!)
Why this is cause important to you personally?
Nobody has asked me that question before….
I cannot bear the thought of students inhaling toxins, carcinogens, and hormone-disrupters. It makes me crazy when children are put in harm’s way – especially when the healthy alternative already exists. Natural grass is a filter, fixing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, a natural drain for bad stuff – why would we replace that with expensive toxic turf?
My very personal and deep motivation, which came to me suddenly a few months into the campaign, is that my father’s two young sons, and their mother, died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, inhaling toxic gas.
Of course, the gradual inhalation of the toxins and carcinogens in artificial turf is not at all the same thing, and it is not the intent of the artificial turf companies to poison children….but nonetheless, these two things, to me, are related. And instead of getting depressed and hopeless about the craziness of exposing children to this danger, I would rather work to stop installing the stuff until it can be proven to be safe.
Can one person really make a difference?
I have witnessed one person making a difference, starting with my brave and generous parents. I am one often frustrated person who is only making the tiniest difference – but that is better than nothing, right? (It has to be!)
Is this a political situation?
The politics of artificial turf in Toronto are driven by multiple stakeholders: Razor Management, the TDSB, the artificial turf/tire/petrochemical companies, with their aggressive marketing arms, and people who we don’t know about. The TDSB is placing its financial needs before students’ health by buying into private commercial plans for public green space.
Community support for the protection of health and public green space is imperative. The Harbord Village Residents Association and others have been advocating tirelessly, whereas the TDSB has approved artificial turf in various schools, with plans for more. Toronto Public Health was stuck in limbo, and now will be releasing a Health Impact Assessment of Artificial Turf, in April 2015.
Who can stop installation at TDSB school immediately?
The TDSB can stop plans to install artificial turf. So far it has wilfully ignored the protests of the community and of City Council. The TDSB lost its appeal at the Committee of Adjustment, as well as Superior Court and Divisional Court. Now it is appealing to the Ontario Municipal Board, a very costly and lengthy procedure.
I believe that Toronto Public Health can also stop installation of artificial turf by making a statement about its health hazards. I have tried to share some of the research, which is very clear and scientific on the subject, with little response, and I have asked TPH to invoke the Precautionary Principle. To quote Health Canada: “A precautionary approach to decision making emphasizes the need to take time and appropriately preventative action, even in the absence of full scientific demonstration of cause and effect.”
It seems pretty clear that both TPH and the TDSB have an obligation to declare a moratorium on installing further tire waste artificial fields and playgrounds in schools until such time that they can prove that they are completely safe – which, as long as the infill consists mainly of crumb rubber, is NEVER.
Are people paying attention + starting to care?
Yes, people are slowly starting to pay attention and to care. For some, the loss of green space is most upsetting. For many, especially parents, the discovery of the health hazards is startling. It may take a little time for this issue to penetrate the public consciousness. There is growing evidence linking specific cancers to soccer players who play on tire waste artificial turf – most of them goalies who spend a lot of time close to the ground, inhaling and ingesting the crumb rubber, with the rubber granules rubbing into their cuts and bruises. The recent NBC series about cancer and artificial turf woke up a lot of people. But there has been little, if any, press in Toronto about it. And most of the people I talk to about it are surprised to learn what artificial turf is made of.
The story of asbestos exposure in Canada is a shameful one, and I am afraid that our failure to deal with the artificial turf problem has too many similarities. Even now, more than 100,000 die yearly from lung cancer and other respiratory diseases due to asbestos exposure. To quote David Brown, MD, Public Health Toxicologist at Environmental and Human Health Inc a couple of years ago in discussing the hazards of artificial turf: “when cancer starts, people like us will be sorry we didn’t argue more effectively”.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I consider myself an activist against bullies and against environmental destruction, as well as an activist on behalf of art-making for everybody. (As a community arts facilitator and art teacher, I work with people with eating disorders, seniors with depression, battered women, youth at risk, health workers and students.)
What can others do to help?
Please review the information on NoToxicTurf.ca.
Please write to TPH, TDSB, and/or politicians (made very easy on our website).
Please share this information and please speak up (and contact me/us) if you are a pediatrician, toxicologist, scientist, who can add credibility to our concerns.