Opinion: UCLA should further research harmful effects of artificial turf
In the age of sustainability, green energy and environmentalism, “natural” always seems better than “artificial.”
However, when discussing natural grass fields or artificial turf, the reality is much more nuanced.
The worsening drought conditions in California and the global concern for climate change were accompanied by the shift from natural grass fields to artificial turf. In 2012, UCLA Recreation elected to replace the Intramural Field with turf.
Currently, the Intramural Field, Spaulding Field and Jackie Robinson Stadium all have artificial turf. Artificial turf at these places saves an estimated 6.5 million gallons of water per year, requires relatively low maintenance and provides durability for the numerous club sports, among other benefits.
In contrast, grass fields – especially fields used by athletes – require more labor and maintenance. Prior to 2012, the fields were frequently closed for maintenance or after rainfall for safety reasons.
Unfortunately, the benefits of artificial turf may only be skin-deep. Recently, several cities across the United States have begun banning or limiting the use of artificial turf. This is because artificial turf is composed of plastic grass blades and a crumb rubber, both of which contain toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS have been linked to kidney and heart damage and cancer, among other health issues.
Reverting the turf back to grass could be possible and beneficial, but grass comes with its own set of problems, including the issue of water conservation. Therefore, UCLA must further research the potential harm of turf and natural grass and take appropriate steps to protect student-athletes who come in contact with it, as well as the surrounding environment.
Shane Que Hee, professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Industrial Hygiene program, said this area of science, called biological monitoring, could be used to explore toxicity in artificial turf.
Que Hee added that research can help narrow down how PFAS are harmful and how to prevent student-athletes from being exposed.
In addition to human health risks, there are also serious environmental concerns with turf.
“Most of the turf that’s being made now is being made out of plastics, so it is using fossil fuels,” said Richard Ambrose, professor emeritus of environmental health sciences.
Another environmental concern is pesticides, which are traditionally seen as a disadvantage for grass, but are also used for artificial turf.
“Artificial turf also needs pesticides because there are a lot of microbes which grow on plastic and rubber,” Que Hee said. “It’s not just the grass, it’s how to maintain it so that other species don’t find it appetizing. Pesticides are often used as disinfectants.”
On the other hand, a major disadvantage of grass is high water consumption. However, Ambrose said when the water evaporates from the grass, it cools the campus – and in Los Angeles, a city full of concrete, having natural green spaces can lower temperatures.
Turf, however, is unable to do so, and such fields exacerbate the problem by turning into heat islands during the hot weather LA is known for. A heat island, according to Ambrose, results from buildings and concrete absorbing heat in the day and reradiating that heat in the night. He added that turf could get as hot as concrete.
Under such conditions, student-athletes will be unable to safely play on the turf.
“One of the disadvantages is that it (artificial turf) essentially kills the soil underneath it,” Ambrose added. “We’re now realizing that healthy soils are really important. It helps sequester carbon and … has a whole ecosystem in there.”
Even though artificial turf has many downsides, its durability for intense sports use may be financially beneficial.
“The recent replacement of the turf at the Intramural Field, funded by the university’s insurance claim for flood damage associated with a 2020 Department of Water and Power water main rupture, was approximately three million dollars,” UCLA spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez said in an emailed statement .
In contrast, Vazquez said the cost of replacing the turf with grass, which would have to be renewed on an annual or biannual basis, would be an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 per field, not including maintenance and water.
The lack of water and lower cost of maintenance of artificial turf may cause some to say turf is acceptable and does not warrant investigation. However, the environmental and health concerns raised in recent years prove it is necessary, particularly for the well-being of student-athletes and the environment.
As UCLA strives to become a more sustainable and environmentally conscious institution, it should utilize research – its most valuable asset – to take care of student health and the environment we live in.