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The biggest risk in sports could be right under your child's cleats

How safe are artificial turf fields?

More than 11,000 synthetic turf athletic fields are in use across the country. More play, more consistency underfoot for young athletes and a sleek, professional look are all part of the turf allure.

But are they safe?

What is artificial turf?
Arlington School District installed turf in 2007, the first school district in the greater Poughkeepsie area to take the plunge. The marching band, baseball, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer and football teams, all use the turf fields.

This popular artificial grass is technically crumb rubber, made of recycled tires. Turf drains and dries fast and allows for multi-use - field hockey in the afternoon won't mess up the site for the football game scheduled for that night. Teams can even get their logos woven into the material.

Generally, fields cost somewhere around $1 million, but proponents say maintenance is cheaper than grass.

Turf tests
On the New York State School Boards Association website, Cathy Woodruff, senior writer explains that, "Multiple studies in recent years have offered school officials reassurance regarding the safety of crumb rubber infill, and no definitive studies have linked turf with health problems. But some members of Congress have questioned the safety of the material, prompting a new federal study."

Underway at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a widespread study of turf materials collected throughout the U.S., including at: nine tire crumb recycling plants, 19 fields at U.S. Army installations and 21 indoor and outdoor community fields.

Analysis of the tire crumb samples, along with a study of exposure, will continue through 2017.

The EPA says that "While this effort won't provide all the answers...it represents the first time that such a large study is being conducted across the U.S."

Heated concerns
The Centers of Disease Control (CDC) also have tests underway. It says the risk for harmful lead exposure is low from new fields as turf fibers are still intact. However, as the turf ages, lead is released in dust that could be ingested or inhaled and the risk increases. If exposure occurs, it's not known how much lead the body will absorb.

The EPA and CDC, as well as the turf industry, say the only identifiable issues at this time are the possibility of an overheated surface and that skin abrasions may be more susceptible to infection.

A grass surface can reach 104 degrees when the air temperature is 94 degrees. Turf can reach 165 degrees according to a study by the University of Arkansas. That far surpasses the heat on pavement, under the same conditions, of 136 degrees.

However, Director of Athletics for Arlington, Michael Cring, says all school districts in New York follow an outdoor sport heat index for participation and this has nothing to do with the type of field. Athletic directors and trainers monitor this and make decisions about outdoor activity accordingly.

Positive parents

Walter Gaceta is the CYO director for sports programs in Ulster County and a parent to three youth athletes, Brandon, Britney and Brynn. The youth soccer clinics he oversees, for kids three to 10 years-old, are played on natural grass fields in Kingston.

His family lives in the Monroe-Woodbury school district which also only offers grass fields. The town is one of the few to not have turf, according to Gaceta.

"The benefit of an artificial turf field goes beyond the convenience of not rescheduling," he says. "It keeps kids participating... it's less dangerous with fewer injuries on a better surface. It's a worthwhile investment."

Gaceta says it's his impression that most parents are aware of the questions about health issues, however, he doesn't think that factors much into decision-making when it comes to getting involved with sports.

Patti Zakow, Arlington High School mom, says by the time her son Austin - along with her daughters Samantha and Dylan- started sports at Arlington, fields already were in place and she had no concerns. "I was confident the schools would provide good fields."

READ MORE: Keep your child safe from heat related illnesses

Not your mother’s Astro Turf
Brian Bellino, varsity coach of football at FDR High School in Hyde Park, also works as assistant recreation director for the town of Poughkeepsie.

"It's phenomenal. A great surface," he says of turf. "A lot of people think of the old Astro Turf which was like carpet on concrete."

Parents do voice concerns about injuries, he says, and he'll take them out on the turf to experience the natural surface and the soft and bouncy feel. "Knee injuries are not as prevalent as on grass and turf gives the athlete the traction to recover better," Bellino says.

Bellino says he hasn't had many questions from parents about the chemical composition or related questions about health concerns. He says the new generation of product is so much improved from older versions that it's here to stay and will only get better.

The feedback on turf has "been great," Bellino says, adding that at least 80 percent of the main athletic fields in Dutchess County now use turf.

Superior surface
The enthusiasm for synthetic appears strong throughout the region. Greg Libertino is president of the Taconic Youth Football and Cheer, an organization that serves kids ages 7 to 14 years old in several counties, including Dutchess.

"I grew up playing on grass fields," he says. "It's all I ever knew." While the youth he works with generally play on grass, too, he knows the players look at turf fields as superior surfaces.

"They see it on TV and it looks new and they know it's a true field," he says, adding that a true field is level with no hidden areas that might cause a twisted ankle. "Every one is the same, giving athletes confidence and consistency of play that the old grass fields can't provide."

READ MORE: Protect your child's teeth during sports

The turf trend continues
Wappingers Central School District provides an example of a town in transition as turf proponents push forward.

Recreation Director, Jessica Fulton, says the town still uses dirt and grass fields for the majority of sports.

But change is coming as the school district plans to install two turf fields this summer, she says, and the interest in turf is strong. Some soccer teams that contract to use the town's recreational facilities have made it clear that, as Fulton puts it, a switch to turf "would not be unwelcome."

Olivia L. Lawrence, a writer and editor for a news organization, occasionally freelances, and dabbles in fiction when it's not gardening season.