TURF WAR: Parents protest artificial turf approved by Montgomery County school board

- Kids in sports spend hours on the field. And to remain competitive, Montgomery County wants to continue to add artificial turf fields to its schools.

“Grass does not support the kind of usage that these high schools have,” explained Andrew Hosker, a Montgomery County parent.

But it’s a question of safety for kids who play sports.

On Tuesday, concerned parents filled the Montgomery County School Board meeting to protest a plan for artificial turf at Walt Whitman High School. The district wants to install Zeolite, a mineral sourced from rock in Nevada.

However, parents and health experts are urging the board to do more research on it before committing to a plan.

In 2015, as it began to phase out traditional crumb rubber, Montgomery County decided to support plant-based turf in looking for safe alternatives. Zeolite is not plant-based, but is touted as organic.

“Asbestos is organic,” said Susan Loftus, who testified at the board meeting. “We thought it was safe and then when it crumbled and people inhaled it, we now know it is not safe.”

Artificial turf in general is more costly to maintain than natural fields. But board members explained it is not a budget issue, but rather about “access and expanding use of fields.”

Then there is the science behind the issue. There are more than 50 species of Zeolites. For example, Erionite Zeolite has cancer-causing carcinogens. 

But the school district is using Clinoptilolite Zeolite, which is “well below the standard for children’s toys based on the European Standard,” according to a press release.

“It’s been vetted by world class organizations,” added Hosker. “So if it created dust that was dangerous, it would have come out in the process of tons of research.”

However, some believe the science just is not there yet.

“I asked them in that room raise your hand if you have read a peer-reviewed scientific study on this substance,” said Loftus. “And no one raised their hand. I took my hand down because I couldn’t find one.”

School board member Jill Ortman-Fouse also feels more research is needed and made a motion to postpone the contract. Her motion was not seconded.

“I believe if we did this correctly, we could save money and be able to address more of our fields equitably instead of just these selected fields that get these million-dollar artificial turf fields that have to be replaced in 10 years,” said Ortman-Fouse.

By a vote of 7 to 1, with Ortman-Fouse voting against, the Montgomery County School Board awarded Sunny Acres Landscaping a $1.3 million contract, which will be partially privately funded. The school district is entering into a public-private partnership with Montgomery Soccer Inc.

The Maryland SoccerPlex also uses ZeoLite fill.

The new turf should be ready at Walt Whitman High School in time for sports in the fall. Albert Einstein High School is the next school set to get Zeolite.

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