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Ron McBride, the athletic director at Logan High, wouldn't have thought twice about the safety of artificial turf a week ago. And when his school changed to a synthetic surface four years ago, he had it tested - for longevity - and not anything else.
But that changed over the past few days when news spread across the country that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating whether synthetic fields contain a high concentration of lead, raising fears that athletes could ingest dust or particles from the playing surface.
The story has caused widespread concern around the nation among parents and administrators alike. It has also caused shock among some of the manufacturers that sell their products to high schools and colleges around the country. More than a few administrators, such as McBride, are taking action to find out more about the problem.
"I was shocked when I found out," McBride said. "So many schools are [going toward] some kind of sports turf. We studied it pretty good before we got it. We had people come and check it when it came out. We're going to get it checked again for safety."
McBride's reaction seems to be typical of athletic directors around Utah. There are at least 11 schools statewide that employ an artificial surface, with at least two more schools, Alta and Bingham, expecting to install the surface in time for next football season.
But those plans can change if the investigation by the CPSC determines that the playing surfaces are dangerous. Just last week, two fields in New Jersey were closed after state health officials determined tests revealed a high concentration of lead in the synthetic turf. On Wednesday, a field in North Syracuse, N.Y., was closed because tests showed high levels of lead.
Scott Wolfson, the CPSC spokesman, declined to say how long the investigation would last.
"We're at the very early stages of our investigation," Wolfson said. "People have to know that when it comes to lead, you're talking about children being at risk, especially in the field of athletics. . . . At this point, however, we shouldn't panic. The findings that we have at this stage are preliminary."
Consuming lead can cause myriad health problems in children, from stunting growth to impairing cognitive skills, and even death.
The findings that are closing fields on the East Coast have caused concerns in Utah.
"This alarms me for sure, no doubt," Alta football coach Les Hamilton said. "Anytime there's a health hazard for kids, we want to avoid it."
The defending Class 5A state champion, Alta is a month away from installing an artificial surface. The school district is buying the turf from Pro Play, which recently merged with Tiger Turf. The three fields closed on the East Coast in the last week were installed by AstroTurf, a national brand and one of the first developers of synthetic fields.
Instead of the rubber infill that goes into most surfaces, Shannon Clark, the All Sport Surfaces director, says his company uses Envirofill, which he says is much safer than a regular surface.
"There are a lot of issues that should be looked at," Clark said. "I get a lot of my stuff from the European manufacturers, who are light years ahead of the American manufacturers. They look at all the components that make up turf, not just one. They don't pull one piece of the puzzle, they really look at the whole system."
Still, parents, coaches and schools in Utah have reason to be concerned.
Woods Cross boys' and girls' soccer coach Kevin Rigby said he likely won't change his team's practice routine. His boys' team is scheduled to practice on artificial turf this week.
But Judge Memorial football coach James Cordova said there's no way he will have his players set foot on the school's 3-year-old synthetic turf. "If it's a legit danger, you have to respect it as a legit danger," he said.
Deborah Cartwright is the mother of Judge soccer player Maddy Cartwright, last season's Class 3A MVP. She is concerned for her daughter, who travels all over Utah and out of state to play soccer on artificial turf.
"I like turf," Deborah said. "I'm sorry to hear that there's a problem."
As more studies are being done on the possible dangers of synthetic grass and the rubber pellets in the blades of grass, some Utah athletic directors and school administrators say they are realizing the gravity of the situation.
"If the field is toxic, it's definitely a concern," Judge Memorial athletic director Dan DelPorto said. "Certainly, it's possible [that we could go back to a grass field]."
If there is proof the turf puts student athletes in danger, school officials say they would react swiftly.
"It does not impact us that we know of because we have not been contacted by the feds," said Melinda Colton, spokeswoman for the Jordan School District. But ''you never ever want to put in danger any student. We would follow the guidelines of the manufacturer. When there is a recall, we immediately do whatever we have to, to make sure we have the safest conditions."
* ROXANA ORELLANA
contributed to this report.
* Along with the University of Utah, at least 11 Utah high schools - Woods Cross, South Summit, Pine View, Judge Memorial, Viewmont, Jordan, Juan Diego, Dixie, Logan, Lehi and Timpview - have synthetic fields.
* Alta High is set to install a synthetic surface next month. Bingham also is looking to add an artificial turf. A bid was scheduled to go to the Jordan School District Board of Education on Tuesday. Also, artificial turf is planned at the new Herriman High School scheduled to open in 2010.
* Synthetic grass fields are popular because they require little to no watering and maintenance is low. They don't need to be resodded and they aren't as susceptible to damage caused by weather or overuse.
* The downside is the hefty price tag; getting quality artificial turf can start at $300,000.