Civic Group Concerned That Richard Montgomery High School’s Artificial Turf Field Failed Safety Test

Field failed one company’s firmness test in June, but later passed others conducted by another company


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The field at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville

File photo by Jacob Bogage

Members of the Montgomery County Civic Federation say they’re concerned after a records request turned up a document that says the artificial turf field at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville failed a firmness safety test in June designed to evaluate whether a field may cause concussions or other injuries.

The June 30 report conducted by the testing firm Leading Design and Development notes the field was “out of compliance” and “does not meet the requirements for play.” In two subsequent tests in July and August, a different firm found the field passed firmness tests. Both firms said the field needed to be replaced.

The June report found the field’s G-MAX score, which is a measurement of a field’s ability to absorb “shock” or impact, to be an average of 188. In some of the 10 spots that were tested, the field registered scores of 253 and 226. Those scores are above the maximum allowable limit of 200 set for safe use under a standard used by Montgomery County Public Schools to evaluate the shock absorption abilities of its artificial turf fields.

The 188 average overall G-MAX score for the field was also above the Synthetic Turf Council’s guideline of less than 165. The Consumer Products Safety Commission notes that a G-MAX rating greater than 200 can significantly increase the risk of serious injury. The NFL uses a much higher standard—requiring all testing sites to score below 100, according to Sports Illustrated.

Danila Sheveiko, a member of the civic federation, said members are concerned about the latest test results because the school system has long maintained that its artificial turf fields are safe.

“The field is still barely meeting their standard, which is already the lowest in the industry as far as we can tell,” Sheveiko said last week.

“Did MCPS immediately shut down the field after the high readings?” asked Diana Conway, a board member of the Montgomery County Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition and a former civic federation delegate. “I haven’t seen any information about that.”

Gboyinde Onijala, a spokeswoman for MCPS, told Bethesda Beat that after the June report found problems at the field, maintenance was performed to correct the issues and the field passed tests in July and August. The school system did not stop using the field, despite the high G-MAX scores recorded in the June test, according to Onijala.

The July and August tests were done by Athletic Field Consultants. The test results describes grass fibers shedding onto the field. In both reports, the consultant concludes, “I would make plans for replacement in the near future.”

After the civic group began requesting the G-MAX test scores earlier this year, the school system started posting results for the most recent tests on its synthetic turf fields on the MCPS website. The civic federation represents homeowners associations and other groups. The federation monitors county and state issues, according to its website.

According to the results from an Aug. 25 test by Athletic Field Consultants posted on the MCPS website, the Richard Montgomery field passed with an overall score of 162.48. None of the 10 spots tested received a G-MAX score of more than 177.

However, the inspector for Athletic Field Consultants notes in the report that before the August test was conducted, a maintenance crew was at the site, adding crumb rubber to the field. “They added rubber infill to high wear areas and deep groomed, de-compacted and brushed the center portion of the field (end zone to end zone, hash mark to hash mark). I then performed the G-Max testing represented in this report,” the report by Jeff Clise notes.

Onijala said FieldTurf, which built the Richard Montgomery field and others in the county, pays the consulting firms to test the fields’ firmness under its contract with MCPS. The school system does not hire its own firm to conduct testing. The eight-year warranty on the Richard Montgomery field expired in August. 

Ryan Teeter, an engineer with Leading Design and Development who tested the Richard Montgomery field, said in an interview last week that the synthetic grass fibers in the field are failing. He said the fibers hold in place the crumb rubber that absorbs impact, so a field can deteriorate quickly if fibers are failing. He said his firm was not contracted by FieldTurf to retest the field after finding it was out of compliance in June.

“If I dump crumb rubber on a parking lot, I can get it to pass a G-Max test,” Teeter said. However, he advised against adding significant amounts of rubber to fields because doing so can cause traction issues that can increase the risk of injuries to ankles and knee ligaments. The rubber also can wash away or be tracked throughout the surrounding environment, leading to environmental concerns if it enters local waterways. Teeter said the Richard Montgomery field should be replaced "in the near future."

Onijala said the Richard Montgomery field is in the ninth year of a 10-year life expectancy. She did not know if MCPS is planning to replace the field. She said the school system is not concerned that FieldTurf switched to a different testing company after Leading Design and Development found the field to be “out of compliance.”

“Regardless of who conducts the tests, we are committed to ensuring that all of our fields are safe for our students and communities,” Onijala said. “We will continue to work closely with FieldTurf whenever an issue arises to ensure that it is addressed right away.”

The Richard Montgomery field was installed in 2008 at an estimated cost of around $1 million—with the turf itself costing about $450,000. At the time, FieldTurf was using a plastic fiber known as Duraspine, which is noted in the MCPS purchase order with the company. In 2011, FieldTurf sued the Chinese company, TenCate, that made the grass fibers for many of its Duraspine fields because FieldTurf found the fibers withered away under ultraviolet light, causing them to break off, such as what has been reported at Richard Montgomery’s field.

The company’s lawsuit was settled in 2014 for an undisclosed amount, but since the suit, a number of news organizations have reported that FieldTurf failed to notify some school districts about the failing fibers. Several school districts have sued the company in an attempt to get it to replace failing fields.

Onijala said the school system doesn’t plan to sue the company.

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