Proposed Topsham turf field won’t use suspect product

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TOPSHAM — School Administrative District 75 has ruled out a controversial product as an option for synthetic turf field infill at a new Mt. Ararat High School.

Given concerns about possible cancer risks surrounding the use of crumb rubber, the district hopes to have concrete information about the safest, and likely more costly, option by the time the field is finished in 2021.

Voters in the four School Administrative District 75 towns – Topsham, Harpswell, Bowdoin and Bowdoinham – will decide at referendum Tuesday, March 7, whether to build a new school to replace the 1973 structure.

Residents will face two questions.

First, whether to approve the base project for an amount not to exceed $60 million, which includes $6.2 million in locally funded items above and beyond what the state will pay.

The second question, contingent on the first, asks whether the $649,000 synthetic turf field should be added to the project.

“We certainly have agreed to look at a different alternative” to crumb rubber, John Hodge, chairman of the high school building committee, said in a joint interview Feb. 22 with Geoff Godo, Mt. Ararat High School’s athletic director.

The alternatives include ethylene propylene diene monomer, or EPDM, which has been considered as an almost equally cheap alternative that does not come from non-recycled rubber tires, Lyndon Keck of Portland-based PDT Architects said during a high school project forum two months ago.

“The industry is rapidly expanding what the choices are,” Keck said at the time.

Massabesic High School in Waterboro installed an EPDM infill, and Lewiston High School is considering the material as well, Godo said. Another synthetic option is thermoplastic elastomer, or TPE. Organic materials are also available.

“There’s really nothing in the alternative world that we’re not considering at this point,” Godo said. “The main decision that we made, to eliminate the use of crumb rubber, was based on the fact that we just don’t have the information that we feel comfortable with as far as safety and the health risks associated with that.”

He noted that crumb rubber – not necessarily synthetic turf fields themselves – is the focus of a federal study about connections to cancer.

“That’s the one thing that we want people to just be aware of,” Godo said.

Asked if there is a material that is 100 percent risk-free, he responded, “That’s the answer that we would all love to have. We do know … that there are substances that are less pollutant, there are substances that provide less environmental impact, and we’re looking into anything that can provide us with the surface that we need while countering the public’s concern about health.”

“Health and wellness and safety are of the utmost importance to us, and we believe that we can put a field down that provides all of the necessary elements to that that we can,” Godo said.

Synthetic turf offers greater access to field space for a longer stretch of the year than natural surfaces provide, which is also a wellness benefit, Hodge noted.

An alternative infill could cost between $20,000 to $50,000 more than crumb rubber, he said, adding, “We will put the pressure on the (high school project’s) fundraising committee to come up with that difference.”

The new school would be built on the school’s competition field. The high school would be demolished, and the turf field finally rebuilt at the site of the former school.

That gives SAD 75 time to choose the best infill option, Hodge said.

“This is a growing industry,” he noted. “It’s going to be in (a turf field company’s) own best interests to find some healthy alternative infill that schools can afford.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

“Crumb rubber,” like the pellets seen here, are used as infill in artificial-turf fields and may be linked to cancer, some health experts warn.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.