Editor’s note: This letter has been updated to correct an email address for contacting Superintendent Keith Hilts.
The Wausau School District is currently moving forward with the installation of artificial turf on several athletic fields using money from a voter-supported referendum that took place in April of 2022. Two months before the referendum passed, Wausau residents learned their drinking water was contaminated with ‘forever’ chemicals called PFAS. When the referendum was approved, no one connected artificial turf with PFAS because no one knew much about them.
But that situation has changed. In April of 2022, we didn’t know about the PAS-artificial turf connection. But by June of 2023 we were keenly aware of the dangerous implications of artificial turf.
PFAS are toxic man-made chemicals that accumulate in the body over time and do not go away. Research connects PFAS with various cancers, reproductive problems, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure, low birth weight, increased risk of birth defects and decreased immunity. PFAS are endocrine disruptors, which means they interfere with hormone production. Exposure to PFAS affects everyone because it accumulates in the body, so young and old alike are impacted by continuous exposure.
Artificial turf contains toxic chemicals including PFAS which move out into the environment. Other turf components such as microplastics and crumb rubber also migrate into the environment throughout the turf’s life. There are issues with extreme heat on the field, water runoff, turf-related injuries and turf maintenance which include a regular sanitizing of the surface.
Artificial turf is currently NOT a recyclable product. Instead, used turf ends up in the landfill or rolled up and ‘stored’ some place where it continues to release PFAS, crumb rubber, and microplastics into the environment. Artificial turf has a lifespan of 8-10 years which means it will need full replacement and disposal every 10 years.
This concerning information was brought to the District’s attention both last summer and again in late winter, but fields are currently being torn up so installation of artificial turf is moving forward.
Concerns about artificial turf were expressed by Dr. Beth Neary, who spoke to Wausau citizens about PFAS sources and health implications at the Midwest Environmental Health Summit on June 3, 2023. Dr. Neary is a Pediatrician and Co-President of the Wisconsin Environmental Health Network. She specifically identified artificial turf as a source of environmental PFAS and raised concerns about putting children on this turf due to PFAS exposure but also mentioned a variety of other health-related concerns.
Dr. Neary said that while PFAS clean up is critical, we must stop the ‘flow’ of PFAS into our environment. Given the research identifying artificial turf as a PFAS source that finds its way into the environment, installing this product on our athletic fields raises big questions about safety and accountability.
The Wausau City Council is currently grappling with the exorbitant cost of dealing with PFAS removal while seeking ways to hold PFAS producers accountable. During a recent Council meeting it was stated that the City has already spent tens of millions of dollars dealing with PFAS chemicals, and that’s just the beginning. Continued testing and PFAS filtration will become a long-term expense as there is no known safe level of PFAS for the human body and the new short-chain ‘Gen X’ PFAS chemicals considered ‘improved’ are similarly dangerous. Thus, removal of PFAS will remain an important public health concern.
If the City of Wausau pursues a policy to mitigate damages and recoup costs from PFAS producers, would the District be held liable for any PFAS release found in their storm water facility?
These are important issues that deeply impact the community and the taxpayer. While taxpayers are paying for PFAS removal, taxpayers are simultaneously paying for the installation and maintenance of a PFAS-producing product that will need disposal and replacement every 10 years. Should PFAS be detected in the District’s stormwater facility, what then? Will the District be held accountable with taxpayers having to cover those costs as well?
This is a serious situation with long-term consequences.
In March of 2022, the School District of Nantucket put their artificial turf plans ‘on hold’ even as the project began because the community was concerned about PFAS. Clearly, Wausau is not an isolated situation. As communities around the country become aware of PFAS contamination in their own backyards, PFAS-laden products will come under more scrutiny and the installation of artificial turf will become a less desirable option. In fact, a multitude of studies are literally being conducted right now globally on artificial turf due to the many hazardous substances it contains.
I’m asking the Wausau School District to put this project on hold immediately and begin communications with the City so that together, we can make an informed decision about what’s best for our school and community. I urge you, as a tax paying citizen, to do the same.
Members of the board and Superintendent Keith Hilts can be contacted at:
Jean Abreu, Wausau
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