Artificial turf is not the best choice for athletic playing fields

Dr. Michael Ellenbecker of Concord is professor emeritus of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and director emeritus of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute.

Recent Monitor articles have described how some residents of Bow and Concord are advocating for the installation of artificial turf athletic playing fields in their communities. Proponents of bringing a turf field to Concord claimed various benefits for artificial fields when compared to natural turf, without offering specifics beyond citing the drainage problems at Memorial Field.

I will discuss specific disadvantages of artificial turf fields, and advocate for a safer, healthier, more cost-effective alternative: organic natural grass.

Until recently, I was the director of the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI), whose mission is to assist industries and communities to reduce their use of toxic chemicals. TURI has studied the health and safety issues concerning artificial turf in detail and has several reports available online. I will summarize that information here, and references for all of the data mentioned below can be found at the TURI web site, turi.org.

We all benefit from working and playing in safe and healthy environments, but we must have special concerns for children, who are more sensitive to toxic chemicals than adults. It is thus extremely important that we make careful choices about possible exposures of children to toxic chemicals.

Artificial turf has been studied extensively and has been found to contain toxic chemicals. The primary concern is with the infill materials that are used to hold the artificial grass fibers upright and provide cushioning. The most common, and cheapest, infill is crumb rubber, made from grinding up recycled tires. These black particles contaminate everyone’s clothing, hair and skin after playing on an artificial turf field.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 350 chemicals reported in the literature as being detected in tire crumb. These include metals such as lead, cadmium and arsenic and a variety of organic compounds including benzene, styrene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalate esters, and biocides. PAHs are endocrine disruptors while arsenic, cadmium, benzene, and styrene are known or suspected human carcinogens.

Other infills are on the market but they are all more expensive and many of them have been less studied than tire crumb and so their toxicity is uncertain. There are also concerns for the artificial grass fibres. Recent testing has found some to contain PFAS compounds. PFAS compounds are toxic and are known as the “forever chemicals” because they persist in nature for hundreds of years. PFAS contamination is of great concern in New Hampshire.

Artificial turf fields have other disadvantages beyond their toxicity. They can become much hotter than natural grass in sunny, warm weather, raising the distinct possibility of heat stress and skin burns. Temperatures on artificial turf fields can be 30-60 degrees hotter than on natural grass. Many towns with artificial turf fields have had to train their coaches on how to recognize and treat heat stress in their child athletes. This problem will only worsen with global warming. Studies have also found an increase in foot and ankle injuries on artificial turf as compared with natural grass.

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