Synthetic turf (also known as artificial turf) uses many substances that are known to cause irritation, birth defects, reproductive disorders, infertility, and developmental disorders.
The risks increase because there are three major pathways for toxins to affect athletes and spectators bodies while playing on a synthetic turf field. Particles from and gases given off by the infill material are ingested, inhaled, and absorbed through the skin.
The industry claims that studies show no adverse health impacts, but these studies have often been designed to test only very limited conditions and do not take into account the fact that people are exposed to multiple toxins through multiple pathways or that health problems may not show up for years or decades.
- Infill materials contain a variety of compounds that are known to be harmful. These include black carbon, poly-aromatic hydrocarbons [‘PAH’] and phenols, which are known to have serious health impacts — and release of these compounds is heightened in warm weather. In addition, lead, zinc, and other hazardous metals such as selenium and cadmium are present in some infill materials. These compounds enter the air and water and can affect spectators as well as athletes. [also see September 2015 update]
- Athletes and other users often inhale and ingest particles of the infill material or absorb the toxins from skin contact—especially if the skin surface is broken by even minor turf burns.
- Turf burns are serious —if not treated immediately and properly, ‘turf burns can lead to permanent scarring and serious infection, including antibiotic-resistant staph infections such as MRSA. [Also see Antibiotic-Resistant Infections & Turf Burns and Turf Burns – First Aid & Treatment,.]
- Dangerous temperatures – While natural turf has a slight cooling effect, synthetic turf absorb heat from the sun and can be very dangerous in the summer. Brigham Young University recorded surface temperatures over 150°F (~65°C), far above BYU’s maximum safe surface temperature of 120°F (~49°C). These temperatures validate conerns about heat stress or heat stroke and add the possibility of skin burns from contact with the surface.
- Injury – In addition to turf burns, playing synthetic turf fields seems to be correlated with a higher rate of knee and ankle injuries that arise from rapid changes of direction. A recent study at Michigan State University tested 16 different surfaces and found that torque on natural grass fields were lower, with native grass fields having the lowest torque.
- The ‘grass’ is toxic too – Because synthetic turf is flammable, it is often treated with flame retardants, many of which are known to cause reproductive disorders, birth defects, infertility, and developmental disorders.
- Contact with fine particles from the infill material can produce acute irritation of the respiratory system, eyes, skin, and mucous membranes, in addition to systemic effects on the liver and kidneys. When this dust becomes airborne, it can also affect spectators and others who happen to be near.
- Additional concerns –
- Global warming emissions are much greater with synthetic turf fields, andglobal warming & climate disruption are considered major threats to public health. Natural turf actually absorbs CO2, but emissions for each synthetic turf field are estimated at about 55 tons per year over a 10-year life. (During the same 10 years, a natural turf field will absorb up to 10 tons of emissions.)
- Synthetic turf has no natural ecosystem, so it may require treatment with antibacterials and fungicides to reduce the number of disease-causing organisms.
- Alternative infill materials – Some synthetic turf vendors offer alternatives to infill made from used tires. These include ‘Nike Grind’ [a crumb rubber made from ground-up athletic-shoe soles], acrylic-coated sand, mixtures of cork & ground coconut shells, and others. Unfortunately, none of these infill materials have been tested for long-term health effects.
Athletes and parents deserve to know the facts and to be advised of precautions that could help protect their future health.
- What Is Synthetic Turf?
- What Do Athletes Think?
- Health & Safety Concerns
- Turf Burns – First Aid & Treatment
- Antibiotic-Resistant Infections – MRSA
- Environmental Pros & Cons
- Maintenance & Upkeep
- Cost – Natural Turf v. Synthetic
- Play It Safe – Recommendations for Athletes, Parents, and Institutions
- Sources & Links for More Information
- Open Letter to Anyone Considering Synthetic Turf
These pages on Synthetic Turf are based on research and analysis completed in May 2015 by Kendall Garden [Lehigh ’16] and Peter Crownfield. Contact us by email.
[updated 19 May 2015]