The Brumby government’s fake grass solution for Melbourne’s parched sports grounds has been branded a health and environmental disaster in a report prepared by Glen Eira Council.

A damning assessment of the increasingly popular artificial surfaces, obtained by Crikey, claims toxic crumb rubber infill inserted into the astroturf contains dangerous levels of heavy metals, requires herbicides to halt weeds and must be watered to prevent overheating when the mercury tops a relatively mild 25 degrees.

The report lays bare several problems with the surfaces that have emerged as a popular alternative to real grass as Melburnians continue to suffer through the worst drought in a generation.

“The industry has identified that there are some environmental concerns with the potential leaching of contaminants (zinc, heavy metals) from the rubber infill,” it reads.

It lists “concerns over the spray from rubber infill damaging an athlete’s eyes, respiratory tract and mouth” and says foreign matter, including “blood, spittle and bird droppings” can linger on surfaces without the benefit of natural decomposition processes.

After the synthetic grass is installed, recycled tyre crumbs are mixed in to keep individual blades from falling over and to give the surface some bounce. However, the turf is still subject to invasion from weeds and fungi, with herbicides necessary to keep it nature-free.

The report claims the plastic grass could sizzle without a substantial watering regimen over summer. A 2008 study conducted by the University of Ballarat recorded a surface temperature of 63 degrees at one Geelong school on a 30-degree day, compared with 39.6 degrees for regular grass.

Despite the risks, the fake grass, which costs a hefty $80-$90 a square metre, has been eagerly adopted by many Melbourne councils including Manningham, Yarra, Maroondah and Whittlesea backed by a combination of government and ratepayer funds.

Under the Brumby government’s Synthetic Surfaces Program, councils are eligible to apply for up to $300,000 in funding to carpet their playing fields as part of a broader $28 million drought-assistance package. The current funding round expired in October but is expected to be re-opened next year.

Rectangular fields used for hockey and soccer are more likely to lay the fake surfaces, while “oval” sports, including AFL and cricket have been more hesitant, preferring drought-resistant strains of traditional grass instead.

Synthetic nature strips have also proven popular in swanky inner city suburbs in Stonnington and the City of Melbourne as well-heeled residents look to preserve their property’s cachet amid ongoing water restrictions.

But it is the recycled rubber tyres used on sports grounds and listed as a toxic substance by the Environment Protection Authority that has piqued concern among the international scientific community.

Last year, US researchers published a paper showing crumb rubber “contained concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and several metals that were higher than soil limits set by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation”.

“Exposure to lead chromate commonly used in the pigments of artificial grass is another issue that needs to be studied,” it said.

However, another report by the New York State Department of Health released last year said that “crumb rubber and crumb rubber infilled turf fields indicates that ingestion, dermal or inhalation exposures to chemicals in or released from crumb rubber do not pose a significant public health concern.”

A spokesperson for Victoria’s sports minister James Merlino told Crikey: “If there was any problems with the turf program we certainly wouldn’t be funding it.”

“The Victorian government has provided more than $7 million for more than 30 projects under the synthetic surfaces program to ensure community sport continues to thrive in the longest drought in our history.

“Synthetic surfaces not only save water, but allow for greater participation and that’s why sports such as lawn bowls, soccer and hockey are embracing the new drought-proofing technology.”

Peter Fray

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