The Dirt on Artificial Turf
If your child plays sports, you know them well. Those little black crumbs that you have poured out from her soccer cleats, vacuumed off the floor or pulled off of his skin.
Artificial turf has become a part of every day life for today’s young athletes and their parents, both at home and on the field.
With all this exposure, parents have rightly wondered, what is in this stuff? And is it safe?
What is an artificial turf field?
Today’s artificial turf fields have come a long way since 1960’s Astroturf.
Since the 1990’s, artificial fields have been improved for safety, playability and durability. They are made of three basic layers:
- The top layer is a long-pile “carpet” of plastic artificial grass fibers.
- A second layer of infill material lies within the carpet, to support the “grass” and provide cushioning. It can be made of sand, recycled rubber crumbs (“crumb rubber”) or an alternate material.
- Underneath is a woven backing holding the carpet in place.
Underlying drainage systems prevent these fields from becoming waterlogged.
What are the benefits of artificial turf over natural grass?
- Waste Reduction– Scrap tires are a major waste disposal challenge. According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, in 2007, artificial fields kept 300 million pounds of tires out of landfills. However, infill must be replaced every 5-10 years.
- Improved hours of playability– It has been estimated that an artificial field offers 2,000-3,000 playable hours, versus a natural field’s 300-816 hours.
- No need to mow, water or fertilize-According to a University of California Berkeley study in 2010, a 1,000 square foot natural field requires 70,000 gallons of water each week and 15-20 pounds of fertilizer each year, plus herbicides and pesticides. New natural fields, however, can require less input.
- Increased access to sports– Artificial fields can be placed on historically contaminated soils, increasing access to field spaces.
What are the health concerns for artificial turf?
- They are hot. Artificial fields are much hotter than natural grass. This increases risk of injury like heat blisters, or illness like heat-stroke.
- They contain numerous concerning chemicals. Artificial turf made from recycled tires contain numerous concerning chemicals that can irritate the nose and throat, cause nervous system and organ damage or cause cancer.
To date, limited research shows that these fields do not present dangerous exposure levels, but studies are small and involve no long-term follow up of exposed children.
There therefore remains some uncertainty about how much these chemicals enter the bodies of active children. Additionally, risk may depend on environmental conditions and field age.
- New fields appear to have similar rates of injury as natural grass, though the types of injury may vary.
- Artificial turf may have lower concentrations of bacteria but cause more skin abrasions that could lead to infection. The sum of these effects is not certain.
- The risk is low from new fields, but older and aging fields remain a concern.
What are the environmental concerns for artificial turf?
- Contamination of waterways. These fields can leach toxic zinc into waterways, harming aquatic life.
- Heat island effect. These fields may retain even more heat than paved surfaces, worsening the “heat island” effect of cities and communities.
- Displacement of natural environments. Natural environments offer many physical and psychological benefits. Artificial fields can reduce these natural settings.
Limited research shows that new artificial turf is probably safe, though uncertainties remain. Further research and improvement of natural and artificial fields should further reduce health and environmental risks.