DC's artificial turf field hardness tests reveal standards discrepancy

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FOX 5 has obtained records that detail the results of hardness tests of D.C.'s 52 artificial turf fields, revealing some fields that tested above industry standards have not been repaired or replaced by District officials.

The Department of General Services (DGS) initially refused to release the test results, but the information has been made available as a result of a weeks-long Freedom of Information Act process.

The turf field industry uses a test called GMAX to determine the hardness of a surface. A group called the American Society for Testing and Materials says risk for severe head injury after falls can be decreased if field GMAX scores are below 200, but Dr. Andrew McNitt of Penn State University's Turf Grass Science program says those standards are based on research from the 1960s.

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The Synthetic Turf Council, an industry trade group, set a newer standard of below 165. The company DGS used to replace several fields in recent weeks that tested above the 200 standard even says on its website a field should never exceed 165. The NFL operates under a standard nearly equivalent to the 165 GMAX standard, according to McNitt.

Records from DGS revealed that of 52 artificial turf fields, two initial tests for 2017 revealed two fields above the 200 GMAX standard. They were Janney Elementary School, which averaged 215, and Oyster Adams Elementary School, which averaged 260. Both were replaced by DGS.

Seven fields tested above an average of 165 in initial tests for 2017. Most of those were repaired or replaced, but two, the fields at Hardy Middle School and Palisades Recreation Center, were not repaired or replaced. They tested at 167.8 and 165.85 respectively.

McNitt did applaud the District for doing the GMAX testing in the first place.

"I want to commend the city for one having a limit and two going out and testing," McNitt said. "You would be shocked at how uncommon that is in other municipalities across the United States."

He warned that science does not back up drawing conclusions about safety from minor differences in the GMAX numbers, saying for example, that it is not based in fact to conclude that a score of 199 is safe, but 200 is unsafe.

DGS did not answer whether it considers play by adults or children on fields between 165 and 200 safe. In a statement to FOX 5 DGS said:

"The Department of General Services stands committed to the overall safety of District residents using the city's playing fields. For artificial turf surfaces, DGS has adheres to the industry standards as set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) International, which establishes a GMAX value of 200 for the maximum allowable limit for safety. While other entities may offer recommendations, DGS follows the international standards as set forth by ASTM International. The Artificial Turf Interagency Work Group, that will recommend policies for field safety, will have its first meeting on October 11, 2017."

DGS said it would consider a change from the 200 GMAX standard when its working group on the turf field issue meets.