Commencement concerns follow lead in field

April 16, 2008 5:12:54 AM PDT
The College of New Jersey is scrambling to find a new location for its May commencement, a day after shutting the football stadium because of potentially dangerous lead levels in the artificial turf field.

College officials decided to close Lions' Stadium in Ewing after the state found lead levels up to 10 times higher than limits considered safe. Similar results will keep people off a popular artificial turf field on the Hudson River in Hoboken at least until additional test results are available next month. Those tests should show whether athletes can be harmed by ingesting or breathing in dust from lead found in blades of the artificial turf grass.

"It will remain shut until we determine it is absolutely appropriate to be using the field for activities," said Matthew Golden, executive director of public affairs at The College of New Jersey.

State Health Department officials announced Monday that two of 12 ballfields the department tested at random contained excessive levels of lead. The fields, both made of nylon-based Astro Turf, were then closed voluntarily as a precaution, even though Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, health department epidemiologist, said the risk was low.

Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, a trade organization, said Tuesday that the fields are safe because lead used to color the turf blades is of a type and composition that makes it difficult for the body to absorb.

"We believe the synthetic turf fields identified in New Jersey, and similar fields made with nylon fibers, are safe to use and pose no known risk to an individual's health or the environment," he said.

In Hoboken, city officials planned to meet with concerned parents Wednesday and said they would offer free lead screenings while conducting their own tests in Frank Sinatra Park.

"We want to be sure the state is correct before we take drastic action," said Hoboken attorney Steven Kleinman. "Meanwhile, it's only prudent to keep the field closed while we do our own testing. Once we have a little more information we will make a determination as to what to do with the park."

State health department officials have asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to investigate what could turn out to be a nationwide or international problem. There are about 150 turf fields in New Jersey; the health department was not certain how many of them are made with nylon fibers.

On Tuesday, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said the agency has been looking at chemical compounds contained in artificial playground surfaces, and would now expand its research into lead in outdoor synthetic field surfaces.

"We have a great deal of interest into any consumer product that could be used by children where children could potentially be in harm's way because of lead exposure," he said.

An athletic field in the Ironbound section of Newark was closed last fall and its turf ripped up and replaced after a similar test result. The result of that test - the first conducted by the state - prompted health officials to make a broader assessment.