Kathleen Michels is the March 2022 Mom on a Mission finalist!
March 19, 2022
By Kathleen Michels, Ph.D., Neuroscientist and Co-Founder of Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition
Kathleen Michels is Healthy Child Healthy World’s March finalist for our 2022 Mom on a Mission® award. Read her first-person story below on how she became an advocate for children’s health.
In 2008, I was made aware of the issue of artificial turf hazards and the evolving science around it. These rugs, made from plastic, heat up to extremely high temperatures in the sun and contain many questionable chemicals including plasticizers, fire retardants, and stabilizers. Additionally, the tons of pulverized ‘tire crumb’ waste used as infill (to keep the blades upright) contain at least 60 heavy metals, chemicals, and other complicated compounds that are suspected or known as harmful to human and/or environmental health. Small concentrations of some of these compounds (for example polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs) are known to harm the brain or cause cancer. Some mimic the hormones that regulate bodily functions. Many off-gas into the atmosphere, especially when hot, and are present in the plastic and tire dust from the fields. In most cases the changes such substances produce may not show up for decades. Little is known about the combined harm from the unprecedented exposure of a child to a “toxic soup” of all these compounds together through the skin, by mouth, and via inhalation over time. In addition, certain compounds found at high levels leaching from tires are known to pollute water and kill the soil-dwelling organisms needed for healthy ecosystems.
These were the problems raised by others when a debate over an artificial turf field proposed for my son’s high school began. I read a scientific review article by Dr. Luz Claudio on some of the hazards, published in the journal ‘Environmental Health Perspectives,’ and gathered additional scientific information from Environment and Human Health. I then began an intensely focused organizing effort, building on information and resources made available by members of the Parent’s Coalition of Montgomery County, MD, who were already working on the issue locally, as well as from the website SynTurf.org, which compiles national and international information. That effort snowballed into the current active local, state, and national Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition. I had help from a number of really committed and active people and organizations to get the ball rolling. It has truly been a team effort keeping it moving and growing thanks to a lot of volunteer effort, time, and teamwork dedicated to encouraging healthy alternatives to toxic fields.
Our biggest challenge is that we are up against the enormous PR machine of the artificial turf industry along with the tire and scrap recycling industries. Regarding the latter, it is important to realize that playgrounds and artificial turf athletic fields are only temporary way stations for pulverized tires (about 30,000 per field). These “disposable fields” are replaced every 8 to 10 years (less if heavily used). From there they go to local and unregulated landfills. Along the way they leach toxins into the air, water, and soil.
Artificial turf illustrates a larger problem in our current laws and regulatory structure that allows reuse of toxic compounds with no monitoring or regulation of the new product. It isn’t the only example, but it is fast becoming the one most targeted to children. The Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition is dedicated to working to address these larger issues as well at local, state, and national levels.
Know an amazing mom who is making a difference? Nominate her to be one of our Mom on a Mission® finalists! Learn more about Healthy Child Healthy World’s 2022 Mom on a Mission campaign by visiting Healthychild.org/mission. A special thank you to our sponsors Ology.
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