Mercury might be known as the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, but the substance mercury is an unwanted guest at running tracks around the country. As mercury continues to get squeezed-out from usage in U.S. manufacturing processes, running tracks are now "coming clean" of mercury with more and more universities specifying "mercury-free".
Mercury, a potent neurotoxin capable of damaging the central nervous system of adults and impairing neurological development in fetuses and children, has been used as a manufacturing catalyst in urethane-based running track surfaces since the 1970s, and most tracks built today continue to use mercury in their construction. But recently, influenced in part by rising litigation, stiffer federal regulations and more clearly defined health risks from mercury exposure, colleges are becoming more socially conscious and having running tracks built without the use of mercury.
Mercury use, disposal and safety limits are currently regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In the U.S. House of Representatives, H.R. 2729 would ban manufacturers from selling any mercury-containing product three years after adoption, along with controlling mercury emissions. Similar restrictions or reductions of mercury in products are also being introduced at the state level, such as H.B. 6687 in Connecticut and H.B. 675 in New Hampshire.
"Any track surface with mercury in it will be a potential target for litigation, and a liability risk for injury to students, employees, the public, contractors and the environment," said Dr. Thomas Garrett, president of Athletic Polymer Systems (APS), a leading innovator of running track surfaces and holder of the fTartan brand. "Because mercury is on the EPA's and environmental groups' radar, buying a mercury-laden track surface today could be buying trouble for yourself down the line," says Garrett.
What benefit mercury usage provides for a track surface is exclusively in the installation process rather than in actual performance. For track surfaces, mercury delays curing and makes the track surface easier to rake out, which expedites installation. But only one track manufacturer to date, Athletic Polymer Systems, offers a 100-percent mercury-free track.
Following the EPA's lead, Garrett and his team of APS researchers removed all mercury from its urethane-based track surface formula, and retained Tartan's resilience while increasing its physical strength. APS now makes the only urethane-based track surface using no mercury.
"Not only did we take the mercury out but we also improved the dynamic performance of the filler material which is typically used in the industry to decrease cost and increase temperature stability but is detrimental to performance," says Garrett. "We turned it into a performance advantage. This translates into better times, even record times, and is the track surface at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field, home to events such as the USA Championships, the NCAA Championships and the Prefontaine Classic."
For more information about APS's high-performance, mercury-free Tartan track surfaces, write to Athletic Polymer Systems Inc. at Box 788, Corona, CA 92878; call 909-273-7984; or email [email protected].
About the author: Del Williams is a technical writer based in Torrance, Calif.