Home Turf Disadvantage

Grassby Sarah at ProgressiveKid

(Full disclosure: I am not a housewife, not that there would be anything wrong with that in my opinion, but some folks level the term irresponsibly as a way to discredit my opinions on turf, so let’s be clear about that; what I am is simply a professional writer who has written on a wide range of topics and who knows how to read the research of professional scientists and summarize it in an article for the rest of us to read.)

As a former soccer player well acquainted with the hazards of sand-based soccer fields in the rainy Northwest, I can appreciate a soccer club’s frustration and desire to do something to improve playing conditions for its members. I know only too well the taste of a mouthful of muddy water and the sinking feeling of seeing a perfectly timed pass floating in a small pond halfway to its intended destination.

All across the nation, more and more high schools, colleges, and park districts are installing artificial turf fields with the hope that they will be spared skid marks, puddles, and mudbaths. While improving upon some aspects of the situation, their choice creates other far more serious negative consequences, including potentially adverse health effects. Specifically, artificial turf exposes players, park users, and neighborhood residents to known inhaled carcinogens and dangerous bacteria and introduces the threat of aquifer and water supply contamination to the area.

The Problem with the Pellets

Synthetic Turf, often referred to by brand name FieldTurf, is made up in part of recycled rubber pellets. According to FieldTurf’s product information, “FieldTurf’s grass fibers are surrounded and stabilized by a special blend of ‘synthetic earth’—FieldTurf’s patented mixture of smooth, rounded silica sand, rubber granules, and NIKE GRIND made of re-ground athletic shoe material.”

The little pellets get around. They turn up in players’ shoes and are visible on the field surfaces. The manufacturer of FieldTurf readily acknowledges that the pellets might be transported on shoes especially after rainfall. The pellets have also been observed in stormwater drains by Marcos Island city officials in Florida.

So what’s the problem with the pellets? A study conducted last year by Dr. William Crane of the City College of New York and Dr. Junfeng Zhang of Rutgers University determined that a FieldTurf surface in Manhattan’s Riverside Park contained polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and toxic metals. PAH’s are chemicals created during the partial burning of, among other things, oil and gas.

In the study, the levels of 6 PAHs found in the rubber pellets were above concentrations allowed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). DEC requires removal of these substances at these levels from contaminated soils because the DEC considers them hazardous to public health.

The Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) summarizes the danger: “Some people who have breathed or touched mixtures of PAHs and other chemicals for long periods of time have developed cancer. Some PAHs have caused cancer in laboratory animals when they breathed air containing them (lung cancer), ingested them in food (stomach cancer), or had them applied to their skin (skin cancer).”

The PAH of greatest concern is benzopyrene, which was found on the artificial turf in levels 8 times greater than the DEC limit. Two researchers at the Department of Biochemistry of the University of Western Ontario have found that exposure to benzopyrene increases the incidence of breast cancer. Benzopyrene is known to be mutagenic and highly carcinogenic and has been tracked crossing the placenta and attacking DNA. It also suppresses the gene that controls cell growth and, according to Dr. William M. Bennett, M.D., Professor of Medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University, has been linked to half of all human cancers and up to 70 percent of lung cancers. Dr. Patrick Kinney, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, succinctly acknowledges the potential health risk: “PAHs, if you breathe them, have been associated with lung cancer.”

Crane and Zhang also discovered levels of zinc in excess of DEC cap guidelines and the presence of lead and cadmium. Because of the pellets’ zinc content, Rufus Cheney, an environmental chemist for the Federal Department of Agriculture, has warned people not to use ground rubber “casually dispersed on agricultural or garden soils.”

But What Happens If I Don’t Inhale?

It’s clear that the presence of lead or zinc in artificial turf “soil” is unwelcome and a potential health threat. But why should the presence of PAHs in artificial turf be of concern if the hazards associated with PAHs result from inhalation?

The FieldTurf website describes its product as having “Guaranteed resistance to sunlight (Ultra Violet radiation degradation). Resistant to rot, mold, mildew, foot traffic, hydrolysis, airborne contaminants and microbial attack.” But in her report The Myth of Rubberized Landscapes, Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University, cautions against optimistic assessment of the permanence of rubber pellets: “Far from being permanent, rubber is broken down by microbes like any other organic product.”

Chalker-Scott adds that “Many bacterial species have been isolated and identified that are capable of utilizing rubber as their sole energy source.” Such bacteria, she explains, have been found in the cavity water of discarded tires, and some white-rot and brown-rot fungal species can detoxify the additives used in tire manufacture to kill rubber-degrading bacteria.

If the rubber can be degraded, it can enter the water supply. According to the ATSDR, it also can readily evaporate into the air from soil or surface waters. And that means it can be inhaled.

It’s in the Air, It’s in the Water

Although Nike contributes rubber soles to artificial turf fill, most of the rubber comes from recycled tires. The process of preparing the tires for use in artificial turf fill involves treating them with solvents to soften them or freezing them so they can more easily be broken up. Tires contain, in addition to rubber, lead, arsenic, benzene, tuolene, cadmium, copper, oil, and carbon and, as a result, so does artificial turf fill.

Alison J. Draper, an assistant professor of chemistry at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, studied the effects of tire decomposition. In her study, Draper left finely ground tire particles in water samples for ten days. All the aquatic organisms in her water samples died, including algae, suggesting strongly that aquatic communities could be gravely affected by tire runoff. The ATSDR agrees that certain PAHs can leach from the soil to contaminate underground water.

Draper believes there is also the potential for asthmatic and/or allergic reactions to rubber pellets. She explains, “We’re only at the very beginning of that investigation. But, given the chemicals in tire rubber and given how readily they leach out, we can expect a respiratory response [in human beings].”

Chalker-Scott brings up still another concern: “Compared to a dozen other mulch types, ground rubber is more likely to ignite and more difficult to extinguish. In areas where the possibility of natural or man-made fires is significant, rubber mulches should not be used.” When a tire burns, it generates a runoff of two gallons of oil and produces 32 toxic gases. It is hard to say exactly what would be generated by a fire on two fields full of rubber fill.

The Ick Factor

If the threats of cancer and more toxic runoff into waterways are not enough reason to get people to reject artificial turf, perhaps a flesh-eating bacteria known as MRSA will do the trick. MRSA is a drug-resistant bacteria that can infect healthy people as well as hospital patients. It infects the skin and even the heart and central nervous system. MRSA begins as a lesion on the skin and can quickly lead to serious illness and death. Unfortunately, MRSA is becoming more prevalent among college and high school athletes and can be harbored on athletic equipment.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control found that athletes who had suffered artificial turf burns were seven times more likely to develop MRSA infection. The reason is partly that the burns open the skin to the opportunity for infection. But many studies, most notably the study conducted by the Journal of Clinical Microbiology in 2000, have found that MRSA survives better on artificial turf than on other surfaces. Specifically, the staphylococcus survives longest, up to 90 days, on polyethylene plastic, which is a plastic used in synthetic turf fibers.

One solution to this problem is, of course, to spray disinfectant. But that introduces yet another toxin to play areas and to open wounds. With natural grass, which has inherent antibacterial properties, no spraying and no MRSA concern would even be necessary.

The Danger of Topsy Turfy Thinking

So you don’t want to breathe it and you don’t want to drink it. You certainly don’t want it on your skin. And you don’t want to be anywhere near it on a hot day because of the elevated surface temperature of artificial turf (a significant concern for a playfield used by children who are far more susceptible than adults to the dangers of heatstroke). But, despite these drawbacks and hazards, a lot of you still want to play on it.

This may be in part due to the support from a few vocal and powerful organizations. One of these is FIFA (the International Fútbol Federation), which recently endorsed the use of artificial turf for soccer. Some may take FIFA’s approval as a sign that artificial turf is not hazardous.

Another powerful support for artificial turf comes from the makers and distributors of the product and their lobbyists. Their websites ignore the many scientific studies that expose the concerns about artificial turf fields and tout the use by and tacit endorsement of professional sports leagues as evidence that their products are great for children, animals, and the planet. One site, EasyTurf.com calls its product “environmentally friendly” and says, “FieldTurf is the same product being used by numerous National Football League, Professional Baseball and college sports teams for their playing surfaces. These organizations have done the research on the best turf for their stringent requirements and they have selected FieldTurf. If it is good enough for them, don’t you think that it would be good enough for YOUR landscape needs?”

But the answer should, with any logic applied, be a resounding No. Why would professional athletic organization endorsement mean anything other than the fact that these organizations believed that the product would be good for their sports—specifically that the fields would be durable, be easy to maintain, not lead to an excessive amount of during-game injury, and be cost effective? A professional sports organization is not created to pursue the goal of safeguarding the environment and protecting human health. FIFA’s primary concern is the health of soccer, and, although artificial turf may indeed be good for the health of soccer, it is clearly not good for the health of my children.

In our country, we continually fall prey to the pitfalls of our own muddied thinking about the proclamations made by figures of authority. We fail to consider what authority they actually have, in what arena and for what purpose. Time and again we apply the judicial model of innocent until proven guilty in non-legal contexts, such as those involving human and environmental health. We hold that a product is not hazardous to our health until scientific evidence definitively shows that it is. The pitfalls of this way of thinking are obvious. When it comes to certain substances, such as those that contain known carcinogens, I prefer to follow a different model: that of assuming something involving chemicals is hazardous until scientific evidence proves that it is not.

In the case of artificial turf, plenty of scientific evidence has, to the contrary, shown that it is hazardous in at least three significant ways: it harbors bacterial infection, it exposes humans and animals to carcinogens, and it contaminates aquifers and drinking water. Any one of those three reasons should be more than enough to convince everyday lobbyless citizens to oppose the installation of artificial turf fields in their communities.

As far as alternatives go, the last time I checked, a field of natural grass made for a great game of soccer.

©2007 ProgressiveKid. May not be reprinted or redisplayed without permission.

10 Responses

  1. […] environmental concerns raised by Bainbridge parents like Sarah Lane, whose thoughtful essays on the hazards of artificial turf (and other environmental topics) appear on her blog, on a […]

  2. Great report on the dangers of recycled tire products, Sarah. I’ll be linking to it for a Q&A post at MotherEarthNews.com.

  3. Its a great report but dont forget that playing on real grass just may be worse for the environment. Grass fields require constant watering. Watering leaches the field of all nutrients, requiring a ton of fertilizing. The biggest threat to our water ways is fertilizing.
    Grass fields require pesticides. Whta are the cancerous agents present in pesticides.
    Finally, how many serious injuries are caused by hard surface fields. Most fields are on shale or hard clay. All of the northeast soil consists of this. My daughter has played 12 years and I have seen more injuries on grass than on turf. All due to the compaction of the ground the grass is planted on.
    I would think the benefits in the reduction of chemicals poured into our waterways far outway the risks with turf fields.
    FYI- Most indoor carpets are now being made from recycled rubber components. Thats a bigger scare

  4. Hi. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your concerns and would like to address them, one by one:

    1. Playing on grass is not worse for the environment. Having a permeable surface that is free of cancer-causing agents that leach into groundwater and become airborne is, I just have to repeat, not worse for the environment. (I can’t imagine how anyone could make the argument that natural grass, the kind that evolved over millions of years on our planet, could be worse than a plastic grass that contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and that is friendly to MRSA.)
    2. Natural grass does not require the addition of toxic fertilizer (with its excess nitrogen and phosphorus). Philip Dickey of the Washington Toxics Coalition makes the following eco-friendly fertilizer recommendations:
    • Look for fertilizers that meet the Grow Smart, Grow Safe environmental rating system. These use slow-release nutrients.
    • Build healthy soil, which reduces the need for additional fertilizers.
    • Add compost to the soil, which improves soil quality and increase the population of beneficial organisms.
    • Use organic fertilizer.
    3. Grass fields do not require chemical pesticides. Using pesticides on lawns is a relatively new (in terms of the human history of lawns) and bad idea. Disease and fungus control can be achieved through the use of specific bacteria non-toxic to humans and animals. For example, endophyte-enhanced grasses “taste” bad to surface feeding insects. Crabgrass control can be achieved through field aeration. Visit livinglawn.org for more ideas on natural pest control. And, by the way, artificial turf fields do require chemical treatments to control bacteria.
    4. Injuries are indeed caused by hard surface areas and by sports in general. Injuries are caused when one player kicks the shins of another (I know this from personal experience!). Sports are indeed risky, especially field sports like lacrosse and field hockey that involve sticks (one reason players wear helmets). (Incidentally, artificial turf used to be much worse than natural grass in terms of surface hardness, but manufacturers have improved the surface hardness so now it feels a lot more like natural grass.) Maybe it’s just me, but I would prefer to risk a sports injury than risk inhaling a known carcinogen like a PAH. (Is it just me?)
    5. Indoor carpets are a big concern–as are furniture, components of manufactured homes, smoking, eating nonorganic foods, and on and on. The fact that carpets and other things are toxic does not, however, suggest that we should embrace another source of toxins (since I’m already breathing in polluted air, I might as well play on a field with rubber pellets?). If anything, it means we should try to reduce our exposure to any additional sources of concern.

    The arguments you bring up are ones also made by the manufacturers of artificial turf. But these arguments offered by the companies that benefit from the sale of artificial turf do not really stand up to much scrutiny. Look for an upcoming blog here On a Ledge that examines the very research sources offered by the manufacturers as evidence of the safety of plastic grass. I really do appreciate your comment because these are notions that must be dispelled. Plastic grass is much more dangerous than natural grass, and this is why several European countries have banned artificial turf altogether.

  5. There’s one more thing I forgot to add. here is a link to a list of the components of artificial turf:


    Check it out! It’s pretty sobering stuff.

  6. Welcome to the real world
    Ball fields are primarily being taken care of by Parks and rec services or public works. Do you really think they are using your suggestions. No they will continue to use conventional fertilizers and pesticides, which all find there way into the water system. The reason why the DEP is so quick to approve artificial fields is due to the fact their primary concern is the runoff of pesticides and nutrients into the waterways causing algea blooms and fish kills. Maybe real progress can be made if we look at problems realistically and not get caught up in the what should be’s.
    Is your grass being cut weekly by solar powered lawn mowers–i doubt it and i doubt parks and recs are using them also.
    Keep things in perspective and grass isnt always green-
    Its a nice argument you present to the naive but in reality there are other more constructive approaches. Like making sure these artificial fields are being made with natural pigments and non toxic rubber(FYI which they have been for the last 3 yrs)
    Check out the web site below but keep in mind and active playing field due to watering needs receive 5 times the applications as your front lawn-kinda horrifying

  7. Hi, Frank48. Sadly, I have been living in the real world for a long time. And I like to think I am not at all naive. Although I do still believe that most people have basically good intentions (so who knows?). But it is very easy to call someone naive.

    In any case, whether blissfully naive or not, I still agree with you that there are problems with standard, contemporary lawn care. There are problems with so many aspects of our modern lives. But what I do not understand is how anyone can argue that the problems with standard lawn care justify doing something much worse. And plastic grass is much worse. I notice that you didn’t check out the list of chemicals in artificial turf. How come? What are your reactions to those chemicals? I suspect you will point out that there are bad chemicals in pesticides used on grass. But that’s missing the point.

    Also, I have pointed out to you the ways that natural lawn care can be achieved healthfully. You step around that and refer blithely to cost. Have you investigated the cost of artificial turf? The full cost?

    One more thing, I don’t know what rubber you’re talking about, but the rubber used by the artificial turf companies is toxic. Independent research shows that it is. In fact some of the research cited by the artificial turf companies, ironically (or perhaps that’s not ironic), shows that it is.

    You seem very invested in defending artificial turf. Why? Do you work for one of those companies? Or is it just that you are really opposed to standard lawn care. I’m just curious. Why do you want to defend artificial turf?

  8. I’ve been involved in trout unlimited for 20 years, donating time and energy. Due to runoffs of farms and sport fields its impossible to restore a natural trout /salmon population to streams in the north.
    Contact TU.org and inquire about there issues and threats and you will understand.
    I am also active in the recreation industry(coaching)-1 turf field takes the place of 5 grass fields. Those 5 grass fields can be planted with natural grasses and left alone. No need to add pesticides, fetilize or mow.
    Think about the entire picture.
    As I said emphasis would be better placed on making sure turf fields are being built without toxins.
    Fields are now being made with natural pigments and stricter standards. Ulitmate savings to the enviroment would be more substantial by utilizing artificial turf in a limited way. Dont fear, a town with 20 playing fields will not build 20 turf fields, theres no need to.

  9. Hi again Frank48. How great that Trout Unlimited has had your help all those years and that you are such an outspoken advocate for greening (in the right sense of the word) our grass.

    Coaches love plastic grass because it’s so easy for them and doesn’t get muddy. But plastic grass is not the answer. It can’t be and shouldn’t be. News (http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/04/19/turf.lead.ap/) this week is that the feds are investigating plastic grass because of lead concerns. There will be more and more stories like this in the upcoming months. I guarantee it.

    The answer is better grass. Take your energy, your love for soccer and the kids, and your concerns about grass and teach people how to do grass better. Don’t make the problem worse by contaminating our aquifers with rubber pellets and our kids’ lungs with PAHs. Even one field with plastic grass is a serious health hazard.

  10. The problem is looking at things realistically-your suggestion of using organic fertilizer-sounds great but fertilizers contain nitrogen-grass fields need water which leeches the nitrogen out-whether it be organic, man made or cow manure-it all contains nitrogen.
    Its all bad for our streams.
    I can tell you i have been at the sight of fish kills caused by algea blooms from run off of farms and fields-I never once saw a fish kill from a turf field-
    Im not sure how one can even argue. Focus efforts on places that really need it
    Efforts should be made toward better runoff standards, reducing crop fertilizers , dumping cut grasses and vegetation in the streams not toward the half acre turf fields showing up in every other town.
    Its a silly fight based on the atrocities going on in other areas causing real damage.

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