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Toxic turf found at Texas stadiums

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Posted: Thursday, December 18, 2008 12:00 pm | Updated: 5:05 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Evan Mohl

Killeen Daily Herald

Texas' gridirons are known for great plays, pageantry and memories, but a new test reveals those same sacred grounds also could be toxic.

Two of Texas' best-known high school stadiums – Odessa's Ratliff Stadium, made famous by the book and movie "Friday Night Lights," and Birdville ISD Complex – have lead levels far exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for soil. The facilities use the same make of turf, a product called AstroPlay.

Both Killeen's Leo Buckley Stadium and Copperas Cove's Bulldawg Stadium have the same brand. The news caused immediate concerns and questions for both school districts.

"We had heard the preliminary discussions that lead might be in some turf, but with this new evidence out, it changes things," Killeen Independent School District athletic director Tom Rogers said. "We're going to move pretty quickly on this, and our field will likely be tested."

Copperas Cove athletic director Jack Welch wasn't aware that high levels of lead could be in the turf at Bulldawg Stadium. But when presented with the information, he began immediate action.

Welch called Copperas Cove Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Rose Cameron to investigate the matter. He also plans to arrange a meeting with officials in Odessa to find out more about the issue.

"Cost is not a factor when you're looking at the safety of kids," Welch said. "It's the best thing to do. We're in the education business for the welfare of our students and families."

Some school districts, however, might not feel the same way. A new field can cost as much as $500,000. In today's economy with budget cutbacks, the money could be hard to come by. KISD is already looking to trim its budget for next school year by as much as $5 million.

"It's going to be costly to replace something like this," Rogers said. "But we're going to have to find it because this is something we need to correct."

Leo Buckley's turf was installed in 2003, the same year the Odessa and Birdville fields got theirs. Bulldawg Stadium got its field in 2001.

Other fields OK

Fields in Lampasas, Gatesville, Florence and Salado are all grass. Tiger Field, where Belton High School and the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor play, use a different product called PerfectGrass.

According to a report by The Associated Press, testing commissioned by the Ector County school district on the turf at Odessa's Ratliff Stadium found lead at roughly 14 times the EPA standard.

Similar testing by the Birdville school district in the Fort Worth suburb of North Richland Hills discovered a lead level nearly 10 times the EPA standard at that district's stadium, the Fine Arts/Athletics Complex.

Neither test found significant lead levels in the uppermost fibers, the portion of the field that athletes are in contact with most often.

However, testing at the Birdville stadium also found about twice the EPA limit for lead in drinking water in the runoff from the field, an indication that the lead is being released into the environment.

"Our opinion is that AstroPlay turf could pose a human health risk," wrote Michael T. Abel, project manager at the Lubbock lab that conducted the test.

Elsewhere in the country, school officials have closed facilities that showed lead levels far lower than those measured at the two Texas stadiums.

Two New Jersey fields were closed in April after testing by state health officials found lead levels eight to 10 times the EPA soil standard.

The lead in artificial turf comes from lead chromate, which until recently was widely used in the pigment that colors the nylon or polyethylene fibers.

Artificial turf manufacturers say the danger is overblown because the lead is largely contained in the fibers.

AstroPlay was the major "infill" product manufactured by Southwest Recreational Industries Inc., a Leander company that went out of business in 2004. The company patented the "root zone" and marketed it as a unique feature for stabilizing the rubber granules.

More than 200 of Texas' 1,154 high school stadiums have artificial turf, according to Bob McSpadden, who has a Web site devoted to the state's stadiums.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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