Danger on our turf: is MCPS protecting athletes?

Analysis: A class-action lawsuit, a questionable standard and failed safety tests

March 19, 2018

In 2008, MCPS installed their first turf field at Richard Montgomery High School. Their contractor told them they were getting “breakthrough” technology and touted “unmatched durability” against wear—the “safest system you can buy,” as described in company sales pitches.

Now, 10 years later, FieldTurf—the company that installed all six Montgomery County high school turf fields—is the target of a federal class-action suit brought by organizations in 46 states and the District of Columbia, alleging the company knowingly sold “inherently and materially defective” fields.

A major player in the international turf industry, FieldTurf has been forced to replace one MCPS high school’s field three years ahead of schedule “to assure the safety of athletes,” because the carpet on the field was “deteriorated” and “heavily worn,” according to a January 2017 Montgomery Parks department press release.   

FieldTurf, for its part, stands by the safety of its fields.

“Every single field in Montgomery County is proven the safest possible field in existence,” FieldTurf regional sales representative John McShane said in a phone interview Feb. 28.  

Over the past decade, MCPS has replaced some of its grass fields with artificial turf because it offers increased field-time and durability, MCPS athletic director Jeffrey Sullivan said.

Graphic by Ann Morgan Jacobi.

Whitman, along with Einstein High School and Julius West Middle School, is in line to get a turf field this summer. The Montgomery County Council approved $4.9 million to fund construction of the fields; Montgomery Soccer Inc. agreed to cover $4.2 million of the cost in exchange for 1,000 hours of field time per year over a 10-year period. The Whitman All-Sports Booster Club will contribute an additional $300,000 to the school’s project.

FieldTurf is among the bidders in the district’s open bid process, McShane confirmed.

Meanwhile, tests at two of the current turf fields have revealed spots that at times have been worn to the point of being deemed unsafe for athletic competition, per MCPS and industry standards. Continued use of the fields has raised concerns over the validity of MCPS’s testing protocol and whether MCPS is doing enough to ensure the safety of athletes.

Faulty technology…

In 2005, FieldTurf started selling fields made of Duraspine fiber, which they marketed as a breakthrough product that would last at least 10 years, according to sales pitches cited in the class-action suit. FieldTurf sold at least 1,450 Duraspine fields all over the country between 2005–12, the lawsuit states, including the field at Montgomery Blair High School.  Two other MCPS fields—at Richard Montgomery and Walter Johnson High Schools—are made of FieldTurf Duraspine fiber as well.    

FieldTurf stopped selling the Duraspine fields in 2012 after complaints over the durability of the fields, according to the lawsuit.

The class-action lawsuit against FieldTurf came in the wake of national criticism following a 2016 investigative series titled “The 100-Yard Deception,” written by NJ Advance Media, a content provider for newspapers across New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The piece alleged that FieldTurf knew about the defects with the Duraspine fiber but continued to sell the fields anyway.

FieldTurf denied the allegations in the NJ Advance Media story, saying that concerns with Duraspine never compromised field safety and only affected some fields.

Turf at Walter Johnson, a field installed with Duraspine technology. Photo by Ann Morgan Jacobi.

“There is not and has never been any issue with the safety of these fields for playing on,” FieldTurf CEO Eric Daliere wrote in an open letter late 2016.

In 2011, the company sued their supplier for defects in the manufacture of the Duraspine fiber. Daliere said in the open letter that the defects only affected “how a field looks over time in certain UV environments,” particularly in the Southern and Southwestern regions. However, many organizations that have joined the national suit against FieldTurf—including Montgomery Parks—are not located in high UV environments.

From the sale of these Duraspine fields, FieldTurf made an estimated revenue of $570 million, mostly at the expense of taxpayers, NJ Advance Media reported.

Blair was forced to replace their Duraspine field, owned and overseen by Montgomery Parks, three years earlier than expected after it failed a safety test midway through the fall sports season in October 2016. The field was still under warranty, Parks director Michael Riley wrote in a letter April 5, 2017, though it wasn’t clear at the time how much—if any—the company would pay for the “approximately $725,000” replacement. A Jan. 27, 2018, NBC4 report cites an unnamed “official” as saying the replacement was billed to taxpayers, but The Black & White was unable to verify this report. Montgomery Parks joined the class-action lawsuit against FieldTurf in January 2018.

MCPS, which owns all other turf fields and will own Whitman’s, is currently monitoring the conditions of its fields and will join the lawsuit if it becomes necessary, MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said in a phone interview Feb. 28.

…Leads to unsafe fields

Athletes say the fields at Richard Montgomery and Walter Johnson have more visible patches of exposed crumb rubber pellets than other turf fields. The suit against FieldTurf alleges that Duraspine fibers shed from the field during normal use, meaning they hold infill less effectively, as can be seen by these exposed patches. Infill is more easily moved around and off the field, compromising the safety of the turf.

Tests at the Richard Montgomery and Walter Johnson fields have revealed both to be potentially dangerous to MCPS athletes per industry standards. Still, MCPS continues to allow athletic competition on the fields, leading some experts to question their testing procedure and standards for turf safety.

One important measure of turf field safety is the GMAX level test, which measures shock absorption and intensity of impact when an athlete falls on the field. The higher the GMAX level is, the less shock the surface absorbs and the more dangerous the field is for athletes—specifically in terms of knee and head injuries.

Turf infill is intended to soften the playing surface, cushioning the concrete base underneath. When the field is used, the pellets are displaced from high traffic areas and the GMAX levels there increase as the layer of shock absorption between player and concrete is thinned.

GMAX levels above 200 can be life threatening if a player hits their head on the field, according to Penn State’s Center for Sports Surface Research.

The Synthetic Turf Council, an industry trade association, recommends a standard maximum of 165, which is also used by the NFL and Fairfax County. For reference, the average natural grass field has an equivalent GMAX rating of 90, Maryland SoccerPlex states on its website. Yet the MCPS standard for GMAX is anything below 200.

“When you see something that looks like grass, you think you can play on it,” said Gastón de los Reyes Jr., an assistant professor of strategic management and public policy at George Washington University. “But if the GMAX levels are above 200, then it might be closer to playing on concrete, and that’s when you get the risk of head and knee injuries.”

In October 2016, Athletic Field Consultants, Inc., a company subcontracted by FieldTurf, tested Blair’s field during a mandated biannual test. GMAX levels on the field measured over 200 in multiple areas, a report published by the Montgomery County Parents Coalition revealed. Initial repairs were made before play resumed, and the field was replaced in 2017. However, it’s likely that students played on the field while the levels were still unsafe: the Blair Blazers had played a home football game just three days before the test.

When you see something that looks like grass, you think you can play on it. But if the GMAX levels are above 200, then it might be closer to playing on concrete.”

— Gaston de los Reyes Jr.

“Current guidelines for GMAX have a limit of 200, but we are well, well below that limit. That’s a threshold limit and all our fields are well below that,” county athletic director Sullivan said in a phone interview. “We follow MCPS standards and make sure our levels are well in compliance with those testing standards.”

MCPS doesn’t own the Blair field, but its fields suffer similar issues. Tests in the summer of  2016 on the fields at Richard Montgomery and Walter Johnson revealed that both had average GMAX ratings around 180 with multiple spots at Richard Montgomery registering well over 200, according to reports by the companies FieldTurf contracted to test the fields. One spot at RM registered over 250—significantly higher than the threshold for life-threatening. This information was first published in an Aug. 16, 2016, Forbes article and a Nov. 2, 2016, Bethesda Magazine article.

Instead of immediately replacing the fields like Montgomery Parks did at Blair, MCPS waited to have the fields retested. The turf tester noted in his report that maintenance crews added rubber infill to high-use areas and groomed the fields immediately prior to tests. Resulting average GMAX levels dropped close to 30 points at each site.

Though he has not been involved in MCPS fields, de los Reyes expressed concern about this testing method.

“We also want to know what the field was testing at before you went to do your test,” de los Reyes said. “That would show what children are actually exposed to so they should know what the test number revealed before they added the infill.”

A FAQ on turf fields posted on the MPCS website states, “areas reading close to 200 in GMAX will be monitored and rejuvenated as needed by de-compacting infill and adding infill mix to increase depth.”

While this process can lower GMAX levels temporarily, if a field has GMAX levels in the 250s in some areas, like Richard Montgomery had in 2016, simply adding infill can’t bring down those levels for any length of time, said Buzz Splittgerber, owner of Idaho-based turf testing company BuzzTurf. Especially on a high-use high school field, the infill is going to get moved around very quickly, creating an inconsistent surface, he said.

Graphic by Ann Morgan Jacobi.

“I’ve never seen a case like that, and I’ve tested a lot of fields. When it gets to be that high [then] the turf is worn out, so the infill material itself just doesn’t stay in,” Splittgerber said in a phone interview.

Splittgerber has not tested any Montgomery County fields.

Ryan Teeter, who administered the June 2016 test of the Richard Montgomery field, corroborated this view in an interview that year with Bethesda Magazine. Teeter said in the interview that the grass fibers are responsible for holding the crumb rubber infill in place, and if the fibers fail, which Teeter said they had, the field can quickly deteriorate.

In any case, both Duraspine MCPS fields are dangerously close to—if not over—even the weakest of standards.

“Any ratings close to 200 should be cause for concern and should not be considered to be safe,” Splittgerber said in an email. “In my opinion, accepting average readings of 199 is not safety first.”  

For MCPS athletes, what happens next?

MCPS will install a turf field at Whitman in the near future. Installation is planned to start immediately after the spring sports season, county athletic director Sullivan said. FieldTurf has submitted a bid for the field, sales representative McShane confirmed. FieldTurf no longer uses Duraspine technology.

Asked if FieldTurf remains a serious contender for the new contract, MCPS spokesman Turner replied: “MCPS has a formal bid process for fields where any qualifying vendors can submit their bids. No announcement has been made about who will receive the contract at this time.” MCPS has offered no public indication of concern over FieldTurf itself and has not yet followed Montgomery Parks in joining the class-action lawsuit against the company.

“FieldTurf has installed a lot of successful fields across the country,” Sullivan said.

The MCPS Board of Education has twice delayed awarding a contract for the three fields. In anticipation of the new turf field, Whitman’s Bermuda grass field never underwent its regular winter maintenance. Since the turf won’t be installed until summer, Whitman’s spring athletes will now be forced to play home games on the grass anyway. Sullivan said the field will be ready for play in time for the spring season.

This summer, the Richard Montgomery field will have completed its 10th year of use, but Richard Montgomery athletic director Chamara Wijeratne said he wasn’t aware of any definite plan to replace it. The Walter Johnson field will have completed its eighth year. At present, MCPS has not allocated funds to replace either the Walter Johnson or the Richard Montgomery field.

MCPS athletes will spend hundreds of hours playing on the two fields this spring. Given ongoing lawsuits, defective technology and weak testing standards, their safety is questionable at best.

Tiger Björnlund and Sam Shiffman contributed to this report.

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  • T

    Tammy SharpOct 30, 2019 at 3:50 pm

    I am a current School Board member in Tennessee looking into sports injury and failed fields. Please contact me or email me additional information. 615-839-4687, many thanks!

  • I

    Ilya M ZhitomirskiyMar 22, 2018 at 4:10 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly with what you say about artificial turf fields in MCPS, and believe strongly that such surfaces should not be used. In my research, I have found that the financial savings of artificial turf over natural grass have been overstated, and that the hazards of artificial turf have been dismissed or minimized.

    I am a sports official, and my responsibilities include ensuring that the playing surface is safe for use. I would not allow any game to proceed on the Walter Johnson or Richard Montgomery fields, because they were terrible when I officiated on them, and probably remain terrible now. Anyone on an artificial turf field is at risk, not only the players, but also the coaches on the sideline, and also the officials who have to run up and down the playing surface many times throughout play. I have noticed more injury stoppages on artificial turf than on natural grass fields over an approximately equal number of football games in Montgomery County, and believe that if more schools install artificial fields, the rate of injuries on artificial turf fields will only increase.

    If you want to make this story more widely known, email me at [email protected], and I will email you about a person who can help spread the word.

  • D

    Diana E ConwayMar 21, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    Good reporting & kudos to you guys! You give me hope for our Fourth Estate.
    Several points for your consideration, and maybe for a follow-up article, with a final thought/moral dilemma at bottom.

    1. Field failures are in the hundreds, maybe thousands, across the US:
    Major field failures are not just in New Jersey but national, with the biggest cluster beyond NJ that I’ve seen is in the public school system of San Diego, where scores of fields failed prematurely & FieldTurf tried to fight off warranty claims & push claimants to take (& pay for) a new/better field. It gets worse: The new replacement fields (for the failed DuraSpines) are also falling apart prematurely in San Diego:
    Voice of San Diego, Ashly McGlone: 4-3-17

    2. Lead in synturf generally: Two years ago FieldTurf’s rep was asked in the Maryland State Legislature “Does your product contain lead?” The rep who was testifying tried to deflect but had to concede, finally, that “yes there is lead in our product.”
    See: version 1 28 seconds https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHpzL9Y7YQw
    or see: version 2 33 seconds https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6I6C869I3Q
    In the intervening two years this huge, profitable industry has failed to find time to say “oh, that guy was off his meds, of course there’s no lead in our product,” or to clarify that there’s lead only in older fields, or only in certain types of fields. Instead, total silence including in a recent hearing before the DC Council where we made the same statement.

    3. Lead in plastic grass (i.e., regardless of infill): Since 2007 we’ve known there’s lead in the plastic grass—in addition to whatever’s in the infill.
    Three law suits filed by CA in 2007 re lead in the plastic grass after finding 5,000 ppm (limit at the time was 50 ppm).
    The leaded grass released dust as it broke down with weather, age, use. Field under active use has a cloud of fine particulate hanging above it for inhalation, ingestion & dermal uptake by athletes, side-line observers, and adjoining school HVAC. As in paint, lead is included as a color fixative.
    Settlement docs signed 6-22-10 state the product at issue is the plastic grass & does not include the cushioning infill (para 2.2.2 at p. 3, “Definitions”) https://oag.ca.gov/system/files/attachments/press_releases/n1953_fieldturf_cj_signed.pdf and https://oag.ca.gov/system/files/attachments/press_releases/n1953_beaulieu_cj_signed.pdf
    Even 50 ppm is more about what’s commercially feasible rather than what’s SAFE. For years now the CDC & American Academy of Pediatrics say there is no safe level of lead exposure, that it bioaccumulates & is irreversible. The younger you are, the more vulnerable, and the more years you have to pile up further exposures.
    As in #2 above, industry must be just too busy to get around to correcting, amending, rebutting etc.

    4. Infill: Yes, tires are much worse than plant-based infill (PBI). If you need info on tires, there are mountains of it I’d be happy to supply.
    Even with PBI synturf remains
    – super-hot b/c the heat is a result of grass blades, so 30-60+ degrees above ambient temps;
    – very toxic b/c still need plastic grass, flame retardants, biocides, fungicides, herbicides (yes, cannot pull weeds w/o damaging synturf mesh); none of this is tested for kids b/c it doesn’t fall under CPSC definition of “children’s product” meaning primarily” for 12 & under.
    – very expensive, and increasingly likely all new synturfs will require ‘shock pads’ that run $150k to $300k, (depending how much you love your kids?) that must be added onto cost of each 8-year cycle (or sooner for failing fields).
    – dangerously hard, even with shock pad.
    – PBI is being chosen in a fact-free zone: PBI is a new, highly variable & non-standardized product from multiple manufacturers with their own proprietary mixtures of rice, corn, shell, cork etc. Untested for cost profile, longevity, injury rates, performance as a playing surface, maintenance requirements, and the **cost** of PBI going forward (cork is being replaced in wine bottles b/c it’s expensive— meaning PBI that includes cork will be too… and a lot is needed for 80k to 125k sq-ft fields.) MCPS is drowning in portables, decrepit buildings, failing HVAC. Why not even try turfgrass fields in a methodical way?
    – PBI is not in use by any pro or elite teams we’ve found… and they can afford whatever they want.
    – PBI likely requires irrigation system (= more $$) because it’s a goldilocks product that requires juuuust the right level of moisture to keep it from blowing away dry, but not too wet or it generates mold that creates slip/grab issues & requires a lot of work to address (= field is offline & $$ to address).

    5. Tire component is comparable to asbestos, per the National Assoc of Insurance Commissioners whose entire goal is to predict risk ahead of time, and to get their clients enough coverage for it.
    The tire component that’s like asbestos is Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs):
    NAIC: “According to AM Best, of all the technology risks now emerging, nanotechnology product exposures may be most similar to asbestos. A major study by Nature Nanotechnology, noted that inhaling carbon nanotubes could be as harmful as breathing in asbestos.”
    AMBest is one of the premier risk/liability insurance resources.
    Some studies:
    –https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/carbon-nanotube-danger/ “Study Says Carbon Nanotubes as Dangerous as Asbestos; New research shows that long, needle-thin carbon nanotubes could lead to lung cancer” 5-20-08.
    –Carbon nanotubes introduced into the abdominal cavity of mice show asbestos-like pathogenicity in a pilot study https://www.nature.com/articles/nnano.2008.111
    –http://www.cir.ed.ac.uk/publication/length-dependent-retention-carbon-nanotubes-pleural-space-mice-initiates-sustained and http://www.cir.ed.ac.uk/publication/asbestos-carbon-nanotubes-and-pleural-mesothelium-review-hypothesis-regarding-role-long.

    A reputable lawfirm wrote similarly that “If allegations of CNTs in crumb rubber find traction, any challenges or litigation would likely incorporate the world of asbestos medicine and experts.” [citing M. Jacobs, M.. Ellenbecker, et al., Precarious Promise: A Case Study of Engineered Carbon Nanotubes, Lowell Center for Sustainable Production, University of Mass. (Mar. 2014)]
    Law360, “Turf Wars: The Attack On Crumb Rubber Synthetic Turf,” by William Anderson and Emma Burton, Crowell & Moring, 12-14-15. https://www.law360.com/articles/737107/turf-wars-the-attack-on-crumb-rubber-synthetic-turf

    6. Nice company: two-time Pulitzer-Prize winners CPI said this of Gradient, the go-to environmental consultants used by synturf:
    “Gradient belongs to a breed of scientific consulting firms that defends the products of its corporate clients beyond credulity, even exhaustively studied substances whose dangers are not in doubt, such as asbestos, lead and arsenic. Gradient’s scientists rarely acknowledge that a chemical poses a serious public health risk. […] They truly are the epitome of rented white coats,” said Bruce Lanphear, a Simon Fraser University professor whose own research showing that even tiny amounts of lead could harm children has been called into question by Gradient scientists. A panel of experts convened by CDCP formally concluded in 2012 what had been known for years: there is no reliable evidence for a safe level of lead.”

    7. Hardness Gmax note: DCPS had to close 16 fields just as school opened his past fall when they failed Gmax tests at over 200. That’s what DCPS was using as its standard. As you note, even industry uses 165 (down from 175 about 5 years ago, for the record). The 200 standard is from ASTM which sets standards for commercial & industrial use, not consumer products.
    –Also, pros strongly prefer grass, and they get the NICE fields:
    “survey by the National Football League Players Association found that a majority of NFL players favored natural grass over artificial turf; 82 percent said they thought artificial turf triggers more injuries than natural grass does.” https://www.nflpa.com/ from https://www.lawnstarter.com/blog/lawn-care-2/turf-at-nfl-stadiums/ of 10-2-15

    8. Cost: happy to talk further; I’m out of time to focus on this!

    9. The moral/ethical dilemma:
    Whose right to be protected is greater; whose kids are more important? Specifically: is it better to replace badly maintained grass fields with (non-tire) synturf, or to spend that money removing the very-known, high-risk tire-based synturfs? There’s only so much money to go around…

    Diana Conway 240-997-0404 [email protected]

  • K

    Kathy MichelsMar 21, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    Great reporting! Students much advocate for themselves because responsible adults are not. This is such a travesty . and only the tip of the iceberg of problems with synthetic turf. Our home high School Montgomery Blair HS is an example from the beginning of what can go wrong with synturf and the lack of any attention to the grass fields; and why that matters.
    Grass fields, with all their health and environmental benefits, installed correctly from the beginning and maintained intelligently (a great concept for an educational institution!) are the way to go .
    see http://www.safehealthyplayingfields.org , http://www.ehhi.org , http://www.synturf.org and others for more information.
    Synthetic fields are the field equivalent of steroids for athletes- a quick chemical fix to a desired end that turns out to harmful and unsustainable.