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ESF - English Schools Foundation

School health fears raised over potentially toxic artificial turf

Experts and school staff raise concerns as five artificial pitches were closed after tests showed they contained potentially harmful levels of chemicals

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2016, 10:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2016, 5:44pm

The closure of five schools’ artificial pitches over potentially harmful chemical levels has sparked concern among other schools and the government.

The English Schools Foundation made the decision last Friday to shut five man-made pitches at Discovery College, King George V School, Renaissance College, Sha Tin College and South Island School for “further investigation” after problems emerged in initial chemical tests.

It came after potentially toxic heavy metals were found in the material of non-ESF Harrow International School’s artificial pitch earlier this year.

English Schools Foundation closes sports pitches at five schools for ‘chemical safety testing’

The concern centres on the potential health risks from chemicals found in rubber granules – usually made from recycled vehicle tyres – which are used as filler material between plastic grass fibres in so-called third generation (3G) artificial turf.

Inhaling the powdered rubber granules could cause allergies and are potentially hazardous to human health, experts have said.

At least five other schools – Hong Kong International School, Island School, Chinese International School, Australian International School and La Salle College – which have not been affected, pitch suppliers and the Architectural Services Department attended a seminar hosted by the Hong Kong Rugby Union in response to the closures, according to an attendance list seen by the Post.

A spokeswoman from the ESF confirmed that all five of the closed pitches used 3G artificial turf systems, while other ESF schools do not use the same type. Almost 40 per cent of all government pitches are also 3G turfs, according to the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

David Christmas, business manager of the Australian International School, said they would decide if it was necessary to call in an expert to look into the matter after the meeting.

It is understood pitches at Harrow and ESF were installed by the same contractor, Sports Technology International. The company is also one of the maintenance contractors of the LCSD's 32 artificial 3G pitches. The company did not immediately respond to Post inquiries on Wednesday.

A spokesman for ESF said further tests on the their artificial pitches were being conducted but results would not be ready until mid-December or early 2017.

Dr Eric Lee Yin-tse, a local turf specialist, urged schools and the government to maintain artificial pitches properly and to look for other suitable alternatives.

Heavy metal-free rubber or coconut fibres are safer filler materials to use, but can cost up to twice as much as the normal filler, a supplier said.

University of Hong Kong chair professor of geography Jim Chi-yung hoped ESF would test for more than just heavy metals, such as infectious bacteria.

“When rubber is heated, it emits toxic gas into the air so imagine how much a user can inhale in a single football match. It is worse for children who are nearer to ground,” he said.

An LCSD spokeswoman said contractors are required to submit certificates issued by independent accredited institutions on field performance, according to standards set by Fifa which state that 3G turf materials are required to be non-toxic.

Hong Kong’s turf war: Heat given off by artificial pitches poses health risk to athletes and children, academic warns

One parent from an ESF school the Post spoke to demanded answers from the group over why they were kept in the dark for days.

She said had been disappointed in the decision by the school to deprive pupils of “green grass” by replacing the natural turf with an artificial one two years ago, given the “amount of tuition parents were paying”.

“Management costs may be lower [for artificial pitches] but at what expense? The cost of our children’s health?” a mother from KGV said.

“The ESF should be more upfront with parents about what is happening. I had to read about [the closures] from the newspaper,” said one parent from the KGV, who declined to be named. “Secondary school students spend seven or eight years at the school, the effects could be terrible.”

The ESF spokeswoman said that all schools were asked to notify all staff, parents and students from Friday.

Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan, who chairs the Legislative Council’s environmental affairs panel, urged the Education Bureau and Home Affairs Bureau to investigate.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung