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ESF - English Schools Foundation

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

Hong Kong Rugby Union brings in an expert to get a better understanding of materials used in artificial pitches

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 December, 2016, 11:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 December, 2016, 11:48am

Five Hong Kong schools run by the English Schools Foundation have closed their artificial sports pitches due to safety concerns over chemicals exceeding international health standards, the Post has learnt.

The ESF yesterday would not confirm the reason for keeping students away from the rubber-crumb, artificial pitches at Discovery College, King George V School, Renaissance College, Sha Tin College and South Island School, saying only that they were closed to “allow for ongoing safety testing and investigation”.

But a source told the Post: “The pitches are being tested due to safety concerns over chemicals exceeding international health standards.

“The problem is there are so many different standards.”

The ESF said no other pitches at its schools would be closed, and there was no suggestion that any other pitches across Hong Kong might be affected.

The Hong Kong Rugby Union said it was business as usual at its own pitches, but in response to the ESF’s problems, it had called in Dr Eric Harrison, a leading pitch consultant for World Rugby and Fifa, to ensure it was in “possession of as much understanding and knowledge as possible”.

“From our point of view, he is the best person to help with some information sharing,” the union’s deputy chief executive officer Robbie McRobbie said.

“We haven’t had any details from ESF, just the notification of the closure of the pitches – pitches that we have some access to.

“We want to make sure we are in possession of as much understanding and knowledge about them as we possibly can [get] so we can make sure the surfaces we are putting in are suitable for Hong Kong and ... for our users, our players and our community.”

There has been speculation in other regions about the negative health impact artificial pitches can have. The concern centres on the rubber crumbs – made from recycled vehicle tyres – although there has been no suggestion this is the issue in Hong Kong.

“The US and the EU environment agencies are doing reports on artificial pitches so I think he [Harrison] will have his finger on the pulse on what the likely findings of these reports are going to be,” McRobbie said.

Dr Eric Lee Yin-tse, a local turf specialist, explained rubber tyres are ground into granules to act as infill material between plastic grass fibres. The rubber, because of its resilience, provides a cushioning effect. However, Lee said, the components in the tyres could pose a potential health hazard after long-term use. At least 80 per cent of artifical turfs in Hong Kong use such infill material, he added.

“When these rubber granules are worn out, they become smaller particles or powder which can float in the air and be inhaled into the lungs,” Lee said.

“Because these rubber tyres are recycled, the components and materials they are made from are unpredictable. Studies have shown that some were found to contain exceeding levels of heavy metals, such as lead, and have been banned from use in some countries.”

Lee said inhaling such particles could cause allergies or an increase in lead levels in the body.