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 fibers. 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 get worse with global warming. Studies have also found an increase in foot and ankle injuries on artificial turf as compared with natural grass.
The alternative to artificial turf is, of course, natural grass, and the best option for towns, in my opinion, is natural grass grown using organic turf management, which eliminates the use of toxic insecticides, herbicides and fungicides and results in the safest, healthiest playing field. Natural grass also captures carbon dioxide, reducing a town’s carbon footprint.
Professional athletes almost universally prefer natural to artificial turf. For example, professional soccer players always play on natural grass. If the US women’s soccer team refuses to play on artificial turf, so should Concord High School’s!
Town managers may say “that all may be true, but artificial turf fields are less expensive than organic grass fields.” Detailed cost analyzes have demonstrated that the opposite is true. Installation costs for artificial turf fields are extremely high, typically 5-10 times higher than natural grass (which frequently only requires an upgrade of an existing field), while the annual maintenance costs of organic grass fields are only modestly higher than for artificial turf.
Studies have shown that organic fields are cheaper to maintain than chemically-treated grass fields. In addition, artificial turf must be disposed of at the end of its life, at great financial and environmental cost. A study of life-cycle costs found that the annualized cost of a natural grass field was one-half of the annualized cost of a “basic” synthetic field and one-third the cost of a “premium” synthetic field. I am quite certain, for example, that the drainage problems at Memorial Field can be solved much less expensively with an upgraded organic field than with artificial turf.
In summary, organic natural grass fields are cheaper, healthier, safer, and more enjoyable to play on compared to artificial turf fields. The choice is clear, go green and healthy with organic, natural grass!