(Page 2 of 3)

The rubber had six polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—the carcinogenic byproducts of burning fuel—at levels above New York state safety limits for soil. The PAH benzo(a)pyrene—commonly found in coal tar and cigarette smoke—suppresses cell growth and causes developmental delays: It was in a concentration eight times over the state limit. "If this were dirt," Crain claimed, "they'd declare the land contaminated."

Crain wrote a letter to Benepe. The turf contained toxins, the letter said, and Crain and Zhang wanted to determine whether users could be affected. New tests at Rutgers would employ "advanced laboratory procedures" to find out whether the chemicals could be inhaled, ingested or taken in through skin contact. Crain asked for the city's permission to gather "about two handfuls of rubber pellets that are loose on the surface" from one artificial-turf field in each borough.

Crain and Zhang had already applied for a grant to perform the new tests, but they needed the city's OK to have a shot at getting any money. "It is quite possible that there is no realistic risk," Crain wrote.

The city was busy rolling out more turf fields. Parks now had about 40 similar rubber-infill fields, practically all of them put down during Bloomberg's first term, and that number would double in just a year's time. But Benepe didn't mention the city's geometrically growing investment in turf when he refused Crain's request. Instead, he faulted Zhang's method of testing, replying that any samples taken from a park would be "compromised" by the "surrounding environment." Cities are dirty, Benepe explained, and the state's soil contamination levels were "not an appropriate point of comparison" because "they are based on conditions found in rural areas."

"He's just trying to come up with arguments to keep us from going ahead," Crain thought at the time. "Cancer is cancer. What difference does it make whether you're in a rural or urban area?" Crain wrote again to Benepe, explaining that the rubber would be cleaned prior to testing. He never received a reply.

He decided to get the word out. In September 2006, the article "Hazardous Chemicals in Synthetic Turf " went up on a New Jersey environmental activist's website called Rachel's Democracy & Health News. The publisher was Peter Montague, a 68-year-old former professor of planning who worked for Greenpeace and ran a hazardous-waste research program at Princeton University.

Though Crain and Zhang's paper was informal, bypass- ing the rigors of peer review, it immediately attracted attention, seeding grassroots movements against artificial turf in states from Connecticut to California.

It joined a growing international chorus of concerns about synthetic turf. The Norwegian Institute of Public Health had already prepared an assessment of "health risks for football players" on turf pitches, and it shared the concerns of Crain and Zhang. A subsequent meeting brought together public health officials from other European countries to discuss turf. While everyone at the symposium agreed that more research was needed, some thought it irresponsible to wait before taking action. Italy's minister of health went so far as to propose an outright ban, labeling rubber-infill fields a "potential carcinogen."

Yet these developments received scant notice in the U.S., even in New York City, which had become the largest municipal purchaser of turf. After a story on Crain appeared in the daily newspaper Metro New York, the city's Parks Department referred reporters to a pair of different studies exonerating turf: One looked at the carcinogenic dangers of barbecues—PAHs can be formed in the cooking of meat—while the other was funded by the Tire Recycling Management Association of Alberta, Canada.

There simply wasn't much research on the new breed of artificial turf. The European studies raised concerns but were also inconclusive. Critics noted that cancers caused by environmental factors can take years or even decades to show up, while turf proponents dismissed the early examinations as phony science.

Crain knew he lacked proof to reach any conclusion, so he wrote another letter, this time to the city's Health Department, asking for help to conduct more tests. "It seemed to me, as a naive citizen, that this would be a public health issue," he said, but the agency referred him back to Benepe. "They just passed the buck," Crain complained. He then phoned Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, and an aide in her office was interested. As the city's Parks commissioner from 1990 to '94, Gotbaum had overseen massive layoffs due to a dramatic budget cut by the Dinkins administration. Now as the city's public advocate, she decided to lobby the agency on Crain's behalf.

"We couldn't understand why they wouldn't let him test it," Gotbaum told me last year, just before leaving office. She had arguments with Benepe, her onetime underling. "'Why won't you test?' I'd ask, and he'd say, 'We don't see the need for testing, and we don't have the money for it.'" (Attempts to talk to Benepe about these discussions have been unsuccessful.)

The city had certainly spent a lot of money on artificial turf—more than $150 million up to that point—and the need to test seemed obvious to Gotbaum: "Until we know it's safe, we shouldn't be pouring hundreds of new fields." Yet the safety of synthetic turf was vouched for not only by Benepe, she said, but also by Thomas Frieden, the city's health commissioner. Frieden's opinion carried weight. A medical doctor known for his aggressive public health agenda, Frieden was the author of the city's smoking ban and rules to post calories at fast-food restaurants. He now heads the CDC. "Tom Frieden said there's no problem," Gotbaum remembered. (Calls to Frieden were not returned.)

Gotbaum still didn't see the harm in testing the turf, believing it would at least quell the growing fears of park users. Benepe accused her of fueling a panic, she said. "We actually had a fight about that too. Adrian told me, 'By your saying that there may be a problem, you're going to scare off people, and childhood obesity will increase,'" Gotbaum recalled, unconvinced. "What was the big deal about testing?"

She decided to find the money for Crain's test, approaching the New York Community Trust in early 2007. The trust came up with $100,000 for the testing of artificial turf in city parks. Not even a year after Crain's initial test, the number of artificial fields in parks had jumped to nearly 80. By this time, Gotbaum had started to develop a "cynical little theory" about the city's opposition to testing: "They knew that if [tests] came up with a lot of toxicity, they'd probably have to rip up all the fields, and the thought of that was horrific. I mean, if I were still the parks commissioner, I'd find it horrific too. You're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars."