February 7, 2023
A year after the tragic death of high school hockey player Teddy Balkind of New Canaan, legislation that failed to pass the General Assembly in 2022 is back and would create a task force to study and make recommendations on the issues of safety in youth athletics.
During a public hearing before the legislative Children’s Committee on Tuesday, the proposal won support from the Connecticut Recreation and Parks Association, and the head of orthopedics at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
“As a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, I care for many young patients who have sustained minor to significant injuries playing youth sports,” said Dr. Mark C. Lee of the medical center. “Youth sports can be a great way for children to interact with their peers, maintain an active lifestyle, and learn important life skills like team work and perseverance. Despite these positive attributes, we also know that playing sports can sometimes have health and safety risks.”
Lee said children require special treatments and suggested that the language of the legislation include pediatric physicians on the task force. “Pediatric clinicians also have a better understanding of what injuries and conditions child athletes may be more susceptible to at different ages and stages of their growth and development,” Lee said in prepared testimony.
The death of Balkind, a St. Luke’s student, occurred after an opponent in a junior varsity hockey game accidentally skated over his neck. The immediate reaction in the General Assembly was to support mandatory neck guards. But medical experts warned that some neck guards could hurt some young athletes, so during that year’s legislative process, the bill was turned into a broader look through the creation of a task force of experts to explore issues of safety for youth sports, intramurals and interscholastics.
“Our mission is to support the recreation and park profession and steward the future of public parks and recreational opportunities in Connecticut in order to promote active lifestyles, livable communities, and quality of life for all who call Connecticut home,” Valerie Stolfi Collins, executive director of the parks association, said in a prepared statement to the committee.
During live testimony on Tuesday, Diane Lauricella, a Norwalk environmental activist, warned that if the task force proposal, which failed to reach a vote in the state Senate after it passed the House of Representatives, succeeds this legislative session, members should research the environmental dangers in the so-called crumb-rubber artificial athletic fields.
“From what I can gather from this, I am in favor of establishing a task force on protection of youth in interscholastic and intramural athletics, but I would ask that this committee very seriously consider expanding the agenda or the reach,” Lauricella said, noting Balkind’s death. “Of course that is important, but something is missing.” She said that artificial turf on public school and high school fields contain hazardous chemicals linked to ailments, including cancer.
“The industry is slowly trying to to modify some of the chemicals they use when they make this material,” she said. “There are true issues that must be reviewed by our local and state health department and the [state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection].” She cited a 2010 report from the UConn Health Center that found no health risks from such playing fields.
“A lot of things have changed since 2010,” Lauricella said, calling the report flawed in light of subsequent research. “We feel that there needs to be an update. This is a huge threat to our children’s health, not only the off-gassing of materials, the heat that is still generated and because we have climate change it is even hotter on those fields. There is definitely some upsides to having artificial turf, but most of those things have to do with making it easier for adults, in maintenance and the like.”
State Rep. Liz Linehan, D-Cheshire, co-chairwoman of the committee, recalled that several years back, a bill that would have banned artificial playgrounds became the focus of a contentious public hearing.
“We’ve gotten to a point, oddly, in society where data is just not believed, and so I’m hoping since we’ve come out of the past federal administration that perhaps we’re kind of seeing an easing of this attitude or refusing to believe science,”
Linehan said. “She warned that the legislation would have to be rewritten to include an environmentalist on the task force.
Currently, task force members would include experts in sports medicine, neuroscience, sports psychology, municipal youth sports leagues, parks and recreation, interscholastic athletic activities, athletic trainers; athletic directors, high school coaches, independent schools, the state Department of Health and the state Department of Education.