Letter to the Editor: Don’t pass on grass


Dr. Joan D. Martin, Watertown Resident

I am a retired mathematics educator and one of the many Watertown residents who signed a petition to reject the installation of artificial turf on the Grove Street site that the school purchased. I also signed the letter published in the Cambridge Day online newsletter on April 29, 2021, criticizing the school’s use of synthetic turf as a violation of the school’s vow of “principled engagement.”

When the school first presented its vision of athletic fields to the Watertown Town Council in 2019, it was lauded as open green space—grass fields. Many were in support of this proposal. It is so disappointing to realize that wonderful plan will actually be toxic artificial turf fields. Sadly, it appears the school has placed the importance of athletic time on the field over the health of its students, other individuals, and the environment.

Artificial fields contain per-and polyfluoroalkl substances (PFAS), “forever chemicals,” which do not break down and bio-accumulate in the food chain. Cancers, birth defects, and other impairments have been associated with these chemicals. The chemicals are contained in the crumb rubber that makes up the artificial turf; these small pieces migrate and can end up on the clothes of athletes and be tracked home on sneakers and socks. Synthetic fields get very hot in the summer—much hotter than even asphalt— and can become unsafe, unplayable, and smelly.

Note it will mainly be Watertown children who will be playing on these fields during the summer. And in the heat, the toxins volatilize, creating additional risk to players and bystanders. In order to maintain artificial fields, additional toxic chemicals are often used.

There is a lot of money to be made by the manufacturers and the installers of artificial fields. The industry has strongly suggested there is no conclusive evidence that the fields are dangerous, but this is becoming harder for the industry to claim. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) no longer support such safety claims. Lead paint, asbestos, tobacco, and, more recently, Round-Up were all used without much consideration of their harm until many people suffered and died. Only then was there a closer look at the danger they presented to humans and to our environment.

And we have a safe alternative to artificial fields—natural grass fields! Why not install beautiful, natural grass? And a natural field is not necessarily more costly. Remember the life of an artificial field is about 10 years and then needs to be totally removed; and there is no safe disposal site for this toxic waste. Where will it be dumped? If you argue natural fields do not have the durability of synthetic turf, I would counter that if the field needs to rest a bit, so be it—it is substantially safer for the health of humans and the environment.

And there are people who know how to maintain natural fields and are most willing to help others in doing so. The Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI) at UMass Lowell provides resources to help find safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. Maybe it would be prudent for the school to contact TURI. It is not too late to change the playing fields at Grove Street to natural grass.

It will be good for BB&N and Watertown students, for the bystanders of the athletes, and for our environment.

—Watertown Resident Dr. Joan D. Martin

Dr. Martin sent a version of this letter to The Vanguard in response to “Turf plan meets opposition,” Vol. 50, No. 2, as well as to several members of the Upper School Leadership Team, including Head of School Jennifer Price, Head of Athletics Chuck Richard, and Eco Reps Faculty Adviser Ariel Duddy.