Your letters: Wausau School District should rethink artificial turf amid safety, health concerns

Wausau Pilot & Review

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Dear editor,

At its June 13, 2022 meeting, the Wausau School District (WSD) Board of Education approved an April 2022 Referendum Project Timeline and Bid Process. The timeline lists four phases (design, bidding, construction, and Cx/Punchlist) of a project to install artificial turf, lighting and safety nets at both Wausau East and West High Schools with the design phase slated to begin in late August/early September.  

Artificial turf was first created in the 1960s by the Monsanto Company. At that time, it was known as ChemGrass (now known as “first-generation synthetic turf”) and consisted of short-pile nylon carpet installed on top of soil or asphalt.1 In 1965, it was installed in the Houston Astrodome. Since then, “second-generation” and “third-generation” artificial turf have been developed in efforts to improve the quality and variety of surfaces. Today, third-generation turf is commonly used and most often consists of nylon, polypropylene or polyethylene grass blades attached to a backing and an infill of silica sand and crumb rubber from used tires. 

Originally, synthetic turf was most used in professional sports, but there is a growing trend among school districts and municipalities to install it as well with current estimates of over 11,000 turf fields in the U.S. While reports and forecasts regarding the Global Artificial Turf Market vary, the Synthetic Turf Council reported an estimated $2.7 billion of installed systems in the U.S. in 2020. The artificial turf business overall is a lucrative one with estimated global revenues in the 7- to 12-billion-dollar range.2 

Among often-stated benefits of artificial turf are that it: 

  • Is not limited by climate so offers increased playability 
  • Saves water and pesticide use, and  
  • Lowers the risk of injuries due to providing an even playing surface   

However, these claims are misleading as they omit important environmental, health, and safety risks of synthetic turf: 


1. Along with microplastics, crumb rubber, and silica sand, synthetic turf also contains toxic levels of zinc and lead as well as PFAS. Even if artificial turf with natural infill such as cork pellets or coconut is used in place of crumb rubber, the plastic turf blades and backing still contain PFAS.345  

PFAS (Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances) are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and have been linked to harmful effects in both humans and animals. The City of Wausau is one of many municipalities that have identified PFAS in the drinking water. Temporary mitigation efforts have impacted all populations of this community—residents, businesses, and even WSD schools. Long-term costs and mitigation measures are overwhelming. 

2. Extreme heat: Artificial turf retains heat, making it unusable by athletes on hot days and increases greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. In studies comparing the surface temperatures of air, natural grass, artificial turf, and asphalt, natural grass turf temperatures were similar to air temperatures while those of artificial turf were commonly two to three times greater than air temperatures (measured in degrees Celsius). In some instances, they were even greater than that of asphalt.6  

A New York (NY) Department of Health report provides comparable results:  

a. In June 2002 at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, the average surface temperature on a synthetic turf field was reported to be 117°F while the average surface temperatures on natural turf and asphalt were 78°F and 110°F, respectively. A maximum surface temperature of 200°F on the BYU synthetic turf field was reported.7 

b. A turf specialist at the University of Missouri reported measuring an air temperature of 138°F at “head-level” height on the university’s synthetic turf field on a sunny 98°F day. The surface temperature of the field was reported to be 178°F.8 

c. A study conducted at Penn State University measured surface temperatures on experimental plots of nine different types of infilled synthetic turf. Temperature measurements were made on three occasions. The average air temperatures reported were 79°, 78°, and 85°F. The corresponding average surface temperatures reported for the synthetic turf plots were 120°, 130° and 146°F.9 

  1. 3. While water treatments can help cool artificial turf (thereby requiring water usage), shortly after it is rinsed, the turf quickly reheats. Again, the NY Department of Health reports: 

a. A study at BYU found that watering synthetic turf lowered the surface temperature from 174°F to 85°F, but the temperature rose to 120°F in five minutes and to 164°F in twenty minutes.10  

  1. b. A study conducted by Penn State University on experimental synthetic turf plots examined the effect of watering synthetic turf on surface temperature. Measurements were made on three occasions. For one monitoring period, surface temperatures ranging from about 130° to 160°F were lowered initially to about 75°F, but increased within 30 minutes to temperatures ranging from about 90° to 120°F.11 
  1. 4. In addition to the sources cited thus far, ongoing studies continue and appear to confirm that synthetic turf presents many health and environmental hazards, including the leaching of chemicals into water runoff.121314 


1. Artificial turf is significantly harder on the body than natural grass turf and poses an increased sports-related injury threat for athletes at all levels. Professional players, associations, and medical experts have evidenced this repeatedly and research is ongoing: 

a. NFL and NFLPA players have signed a petition for field surfaces all to be changed to natural grass.15 

b. (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) requires the World Cup to be played on natural grass.1617  

c. An analysis of injuries sustained by high school athletes during the 2017-18 school year on both artificial and natural grass turf showed that athletes were 58% more likely to sustain lower extremity, upper extremity, and torso injuries on artificial turf with injury rates significantly higher for football, girls’ and boys’ soccer, and rugby.18  

d. A review of lower extremity injuries by athletes on artificial turf (both old- and new-generation turf) reported a higher foot and ankle injury rate on artificial turf compared to natural grass.19  

e. A review of knee injuries sustained by college football players on artificial turf revealed an overall incidence of PCL injuries at 2.94 times the rate of those sustained on natural grass.20  

2. There is also an increased association between turf burns/skin abrasions and artificial turf. High school football players have a fourfold greater risk in general of contracting MRSA than do other student athletes; thus, burns from artificial turf further increase the risk of infectious outbreaks such as MRSA.21


1. The carbon footprint of synthetic turf is much greater than that of natural grass turf.22 An artificial turf field lasts on average only 7-10 years before having to be replaced.  

2. A typical artificial turf field contains 40,000 pounds (about twice the weight of a school bus) of microplastics and another 400,000 pounds of crumb rubber.23 Recycling artificial turf is tremendously difficult, the effectiveness is highly questioned, and no standardized system for recycling artificial turf exists.2425  

3. With no recycling program, artificial turf waste commonly ends up in landfills instead or, as several documented cases have reported, has been dumped on a mountainside, vacant land, or near the periphery of properties.2627  

4. Replacing 440,000 square feet of existing natural grass with microplastics and rubber creates a heat-dome effect for the surrounding trees and wildlife and adds to the heating of the planet.  

5. When artificial turf needs to be rinsed or it rains, PFAS, microplastics from turf blades and infill, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals are emitted into storm sewers and groundwater, increasing the threat to water supplies and public health.2829 

6. The crumb rubber from artificial turf also sticks to athletes’ shoes, clothing, and skin and migrates to other areas, bringing hazardous chemicals with it.30 

7. A Guideline to Recycle, Reuse, Repurpose and Remove Synthetic Turf Systems published by the Synthetic Turf Council appears to acknowledge the staggering amount of waste and environmental risks that artificial turf poses: 

One thousand deconstructed fields represent 80 million square feet of turf weighing 40 million pounds and [another] 400 million pounds of infill” and “Industry stakeholders have estimated the approximate number of synthetic turf sports fields that are deconstructed annually from 2013 through 2018 include: 2013 (365 fields); 2014 (570 fields); 2015 (325 fields); 2016 (450 fields); 2017 (600 fields); and 2018 (750 fields).31”  

According to the Council’s own estimates then, 3,060 synthetic turf fields were deconstructed in that 5–6-year period creating waste containing hazardous materials of over 120 million pounds of plastic turf and another 1,200 million pounds of infill. 

The Council further notes that: 

Converting synthetic turf to a recyclable material that is usable cannot be accomplished at the point of removal. The cost of shipping is one of the biggest challenges associated with synthetic turf reclamation. Logistics, timing and the possible cost of testing the material to recycle and reuse may need to be considered… As with any recycle, reuse and recovery effort, the diversity of component materials may represent economic or technical challenges. Synthetic turf includes a variety of polymers such as polyethylene, polypropylene, polyester, nylon, styrene butadiene rubber and polyurethane… The industry continues to research and identify the most economical and responsible way to process all turf components such as turf plastics, infill(s) and underlayment pads that need to be removed, recycled and reused.32 

While the Synthetic Turf Council continues to advocate the sale of synthetic turf, accountability for the waste that it produces appears lacking. 

8. The ESTC-EMEA Synthetic Turf Council in Brussels, in publishing the following, likewise acknowledges the environmental threat of artificial turf:   

AN INDUSTRY UNDER PRESSURE We are operating in an industry under pressure right now. Several key issues, such as adverse publicity about potentially harmful chemicals in rubber crumb infill and an ongoing microplastic debate, are just two of the issues. Sustainability and recycling are now hot topics for all businesses involved in this sector. 


At the moment, recycling options are not mainstream or available on every continent. As an example, most countries in Europe with the highest volume of artificial turf pitches do not have access to a recycling plant. 

We have seen many installers offering repurposing or reuse of materials as a solution, but this is just kicking the can down the road when, ultimately, the old turf becomes someone else’s waste to deal with. Old turf is generally end-of-use, so it does not get reused for sport. Its infill can be repurposed and even recycled successfully if cleaned, but it is perceived as low-value. These are just some of the barriers that are beginning to surface. 

THERE IS A SIGNIFICANT BARRIER WITH LEGISLATION Legislation in waste management is strong, just ask one of those brave companies that have tried to set up recycling plants in Europe. Unfortunately, legislation to force owners to recycle is very weak. Legislators need to be informed so that the correct legislation is applied. The industry needs to lobby and educate in this regard, otherwise the wrong kind of legislation will be applied. 


Consumers are becoming savvier all the time. They will put their dollars into what they consider to be sustainable products. The pressure is applied from many sections of society, which will only get stronger, even in the short-term. The industry needs to get ahead of this.33   

Amid the popularity of artificial turf, communities and states are becoming increasingly aware of its numerous risks, including the above, and many are acting to prevent or even ban it. The EPA is expected to officially label PFOA and PFOS (both PFAS chemicals) as hazardous substances and polluters will in turn face likely legal action.3435 With the average lifespan of an artificial turf field only 8-10 years and such uncertainties about its recyclability, it remains to be seen who will be held responsible as ”polluters” once regulations are in place. 

Although area sports enthusiasts may be looking forward to the currently proposed turf projects at Wausau East and West High Schools, given the many risks of synthetic turf and possible legal ramifications of PFAS pollution, a revision to the current project seems to be in the best interests of this community.  

The good news is that alternatives exist! If the goal is to extend the practice and playing seasons for our sports teams and students, there are better, environmentally favorable options including the following: 

1. Sod with drought-resistant grass over a base with proper drainage will extend playing time. Systems for reclaiming water can be installed so that the drought-resistant grass can be watered periodically in summer months with the reclaimed water. 

2. Adding a layer of compost to natural grass turf can increase water absorption and reduce the need for chemical applications such as pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers. In fact, Lara Bryant, Deputy Director, Water and Agriculture, Nature Program at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) explains that “Each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre.3637“ 

3. Allowing turfgrass to grow a bit taller when possible and if appropriate to the species allows for deeper root development and durability.38 

4. Installation of rain sensors and other recommended devices will reduce irrigation needs and improve efficiency.39 

5. Aerating the soil improves drainage, increases absorption of water, decreases the need for irrigation, and creates a softer, safer playing surface.40 

6. Implementing soil testing, organic fertilizer, and soil amendments, when needed, as indicated by test results.41 

7. Natural grass fields support ecosystems, clean air, and water while synthetic turf has negative impacts on the health of the ecosystem.4243444546 

8. Since the Wausau School District, like many others, already has natural grass turf fields in place, improving the current fields will also be much less costly than converting to artificial turf. 

I commend the WSD Board of Education for wishing to provide notable opportunities for its students. Considering the overwhelming evidence on the many hazards of synthetic turf, the words of the insightful Dr. Maya Angelou appear particularly relevant for moving forward in a different direction: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

Beginning a design process next month with a committed plan of using improved, safe, and ecologically friendly natural grass turf fields will position the WSD Board of Education as a proactive and exemplary leader for students, their families, area school districts, and this entire community. 

Carol Lukens, Wausau




3 Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Artificial Turf Carpet (article from the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute – TURI): 


5 Information regarding Synthetic Turf Standards and Testing from organization involved in discussions about proposed turf on Martha’s Vineyard: 

6 Health Impact Assessment of the Use of Artificial Turf in TorontoApril 2015, 






12 D. Armada, M. Llompart, M. Celeiro, P. Garcia-Castro, N. Ratola, T. Dagnac, J. de Boer. Global evaluation of the chemical hazard of recycled tire crumb rubber employed on worldwide synthetic turf football pitches, Science of The Total Environment, 812 (2022), Article 152542, 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.152542

13 M. Celeiro, D. Armada, N. Ratola, T. Dagnac, J. de Boer, M. Llompart.  Evaluation of chemicals of environmental concern in crumb rubber and water leachates from several types of synthetic turf football pitches, Chemosphere, 270 (2021), Article 128610, 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2020.128610 

14 A. N. Perkins, S. H. Inayat-Hussain, N. C. Deziel, C. H. Johnson, S. S. Ferguson, R. Garcia-Milian, D. C. Thompson, V. Vasiliou. Evaluation of potential carcinogenicity of organic chemicals in synthetic turf crumb rubber, Environmental Research, 169 (2019), Pages 163-172, ISSN 0013-9351, http23 








21 Keller M, Turco RF, Gray MB, Sigler V. The Fate of Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus in a Synthetic Turf System. Sports Health. 2020 May/Jun;12(3):263-270. doi: 10.1177/1941738120909353. Epub 2020 Apr 9. PMID: 32271131; PMCID: PMC7222665 























44 The 5th link under the heading “BENEFITS OF NATURAL GRASS” on this webpage contains a Power Point from Sports Turf Managers Association listing both the environmental and health benefits of maintaining natural grass fields rather than installing artificial turf: 



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