Lead found at South Korea sports fields; Camp Henry facility is closed
By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 22, 2008
CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Elevated lead levels were found in inspections of three synthetic turf fields at bases in South Korea and one field has been closed, military officials said Friday.
The Camp Henry field in Daegu has been closed pending additional testing, said officials with the 18th Medical Command.
The field next to the Collier Field House at Yongsan Garrison, and Soldier Field between the theater and Carey Gym at Camp Casey, showed elevated levels of lead but remained within safe limits, officials said.
"The field at Camp Henry does pose a potential for exposure to lead, provided that children actually ingest whatever dust might come from degradation of that field," said Dr. (Maj.) Remington Nevin, of 18th Medical Command’s preventive medicine section. "The primary risk is to younger children prone to hand-to-mouth activities."
The Camp Henry field registered a lead count of 771 milligrams per kilogram, said Larry Pazyra, 18th Medical Command industrial hygiene supervisor. Anything above 400 milligrams per kilogram is considered significant, he said.
Yongsan’s field tested at 153 milligrams per kilogram, though the samples came from the edges because the turf had worn down considerably, Pazyra said.
Camp Casey’s Soldier Field tested at 68 milligrams per kilogram.
South Korea’s nine other synthetic turf fields tested at less than 22 milligrams per kilogram, including those at camps Hovey, Carroll and Humphreys and at Yongsan Garrison.
"Those low lead concentration numbers are lower than what might be typically found in some urban soils," Nevin said.
Contractors for each field submitted technical data to the Army Corps of Engineers Far East District showing that the fields were free of heavy metals prior to completion, said Installation Management Command spokesman Ed Johnson. However, lead chromate is an ingredient in some pigments used to make synthetic turf. When exposed to the elements, the lead may separate and bond with dust. Lead may also come from the rubber cushioning the grass underneath.
Two bases in Japan have fields using synthetic turf.
Yokosuka Naval Base’s Berkey Field, a $2 million project installed last summer, is currently undergoing lead testing, base spokeswoman Michelle Stewart said Friday.
Sasebo’s Nimitz Park was tested and deemed safe, base spokesman Chuck Howard said.
Lead should be avoided by adults but is more likely to cause health problems if ingested by children 6 years old or younger, Nevin said.
It’s unclear whether there is a health risk through skin contact with the dust, according to medical experts.
When ingested in large quantities, lead can cause muscle weakness and brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Parents can minimize lead exposure to children by keeping shoes off while in the home, vacuuming with a HEPA filter, cleaning off dust, washing hands and encouraging proper hygiene, Nevin said.
Each field that showed elevated lead levels will be retested by a laboratory contracted through the Army Corps of Engineers Far East District, Johnson said.
If the Camp Henry field results are confirmed or if any other fields show hazardous levels, officials will ask the head South Korean contractor to remove the field.
The Camp Henry field was finished in 2007. The Camp Casey field was built in 2006, and the Yongsan field was finished in 2001.
Pazyra took 175 total samples from the 12 fields during initial testing.
The samples were sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, which contracted the testing to Microbac Laboratories in Baltimore.
Stars and Stripes reporters Allison Batdorff and Travis J. Tritten contributed to this report.
Officials say synthetic turf is safer and cheaper
Synthetic turf fields have gained popularity both in the United States and at military bases worldwide for their long-term cost savings and safety features, athletics and recreation officials say.
Along with the 12 synthetic turf fields laid down in South Korea, Sasebo Naval Base and Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan both use synthetic surfaces.
Synthetic fields have changed considerably since AstroTurf was introduced in the 1960s.
The artificial turf felt like a carpet on top of concrete, and professional football players blamed the turf for "turf toe" and more serious injuries.
Now a wide variety of synthetic turfs are marketed as softer than grass and dirt.
The newer synthetic turf fields at places such as Camp Humphreys have reduced sports injuries, said Ed Johnson, spokesman for South Korea’s Installation Management Command.
The fields also allow year-round play and survive the monsoon season better, said Paul Cramer, chief of public works for the Installation Management Command.
"We probably have more [synthetic turf] fields here density-wise than any other region," Cramer said.
Although synthetic fields cost more initially, the military generally recoups their costs after the first few years because the fields require less maintenance and no watering, officials said.
"Over the course of seven to 10 years, you end up saving about a half a million dollars," said Bill Bryan, deputy chief of Morale, Welfare and Recreation in South Korea. "But the big thing is the reduction in injuries."
However, stateside agencies are testing synthetic turf to see if the perceived benefits come with a health risk — which is what prompted testing in South Korea, officials said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and New York state are studying lead in synthetic turf following multiple park closures in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut since April due to high lead levels.
After a field in Hoboken, N.J., closed, four children who played on it were tested for lead poisoning, according to a New York Times report. None showed abnormally high lead levels, the report said.
Industry trade groups have said the product is safe and that children would have to consume large quantities of turf to suffer ill effects from lead.
— Erik Slavin