When it comes to head injury risk, Marblehead’s Piper Field likely safe, tests show

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While it has not been tested since the summer of 2021, those test results plus subsequent suggest that the surface of Piper Field should be sufficiently soft to be deemed safe, when it comes to risk of contributing to head injuries.

Prompted by the Boston Globe’s recent story “Aging artificial turf fields may carry risk of head injuries,” the Marblehead News filed a public records request for the past four years’ of testing on Piper Field.

As described in the reports, the testing is conducted by dropping a 20-pound “impacting missile” three times at 10 different locations on the field, which takes a measurement known as the GMAX.

Any GMAX value greater than 200 would qualify the field as “unsafe” due to the risk that “life-threatening head injuries may occur.” Meanwhile, the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry trade association, recommends GMAX not exceed 164.

In Piper Field’s most recent test on Aug. 25, 2021, the GMAX average at Piper Field was 145, and the range of readings at the 10 spots on the field was relatively narrow, from 132 to 152.

The report on that test included a recommendation: “Your field is in need of rubber. Additional infill will lower the overall GMAX score by about 10 points and protect individual fibers from wear and tear.”

The town responded to this recommendation, adding eight tons of rubber fill to the field on Oct. 20, 2021, according to Athletic Director Greg Ceglarski.

The 2021 report noted, “Additional infill will lower the overall GMAX score by about 10 points and protect individual fibers from wear and tear.”

Presumably, that brought Piper Field’s GMAX score down into the 130s.

Regular testing has shown that Piper Field provides a sufficiently cushioned landing for competitors and cheerleaders alike.

Recreation & Parks Superintendent Peter James explained that the town recently purchased equipment to enable it to do GMAX testing in house, “as we would always have to find money from within our budget to have this done because there is no money specifically budgeted for maintenance on Piper Field.”

In 2018, the test revealed that Piper Field had an “overall GMAX” of 143.6, though it did have one spot, at the “southwest 10-yard line,” where the GMAX average was at the outer limit of the STC’s recommendation: 164.5.

In 2019, the GMAX average was 136, with individual readings at the 10 different spots on the field ranging from 110 to 161.

Testing was not conducted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to James.

As one of the reports notes, fields tend to lose an average of 2-3 milliliters of infill annually, which causes fiber wear and tear that will eventually result in a higher GMAX score.

Piper Field, which was installed in 2013, is nearing the end of its 10-year warranty period, which is on the town’s radar, Ceglarski said.

“We are starting to begin the process of field replacement, but as of today, there is no set date to replace the turf,” he said.

Beyond extensive jobs like the one a year ago to add eight tons of fill, the Parks & Recreation Department also grooms the field about once every other week by dragging a giant brush behind a tractor, Ceglarski explained.

In addition, tears in the turf have needed to be fixed, a fence post has been replaced, and some netting has been installed, Ceglarski said.

As the Globe noted, head injuries are just one concern when it comes to the safety of synthetic fields. A review of the available body of literature suggested that foot and ankle injuries may be more prevalent on artificial turf than natural grass, while knee and hip injuries appear to be occurring at similar rates.

The Globe has also reported on health concerns related not only to artificial turf pellets but a series of tests in 2019 that found that the blades, and their plastic backing, may also contain toxic chemicals known as PFAS, which have been linked to kidney cancer, low infant birth weights, and a range of diseases.

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