Note: An expanded & updated post on synthetic turf has been added to to the Focus On… section as an Open Letter to Anyone Considering Synthetic Turf.
This post is prompted by an article in the Express-Times reporting that the Bethlehem Area School District is considering replacement of the artificial turf at Liberty HS and is also considering future installations at Freedom HS & Nitschmann MS.1 Other Lehigh Valley schools also use artificial turf.
I did a very quick review of current information on artificial turf, and confirmed that there are many health concerns in connection with these fields. Studies in the last few years have provided evidence of long-term health risks from off-gassing and particle inhalation; another concern is toxic compounds from the rubber particles leaching into surface & ground water. (The problem is the crumb rubber used as a base for the turf, because it contains VOC [Volatile Organic Compounds / PAH [Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons] and other harmful compounds.) In December 2013, the New Haven Register reported2 that EPA stepped back from earlier assurances and recommends additional studies.
“…. EPA has posted new cautions concerning unexplored chemical exposure to more than 30 compounds found in synthetic shredded tire turf, including arsenic, lead, cobalt, mercury and trichloroethylene….”
There are several short-term concerns as well: much higher air temperatures increase the risk of heat stress or heat stroke; increased risk of minor abrasion to the skin & MRSA [Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus]; and allergic reactions, including asthma episodes, to latex and other compounds in the rubber infill.
Recent concerns include recent reports of high cancer rates in athletes who play on artificial turf. According to the Environment & Human Health institute ‘Every synthetic turf field has 40,000 ground-up rubber tires in it. This is a lot of toxic material to expose our children and students to.’ EHHI recommends the following:
- Children and students should be discouraged from playing on synthetic turf fields that contain ground-up rubber tire infill.
- If children and students must play on these fields, they should shower immediately after leaving the field, as well as changing their clothing, including their socks and shoes. This is because the tiny rubber crumbs and the rubber crumb dust gets into socks, shoes, hair, ears etc. from the field’s rubber tire infill.
It is essential to apply the Precautionary Principle and avoid use of artificial turf, especially in schools and other environments where the fields will be used primarily by young people, until its safety has been proven.
Given the accumulating evidence of potential harm, school districts and other entities considering artificial turf need to look at this from the perspective of science-based public health policy, not just budgetary concerns.
There are indications that the financial savings of the synthetic fields may be grossly overstated — some university studies show that the total cost to install & maintain natural turf may be less than for synthetic turf!
- How Safe Is the Artificial Turf Your Child Plays On? – NBC News, 8 October 2014
- Toxicologist unsurprised by artificial turf-cancer report – SoccerWire, 14 October 2014
- Natural & Synthetic Turf – Installation & Maintenance Comparison – Turfgrass Research Center
- ‘Bethlehem Area School District weighing synthetic turf refresh, new turf fields’ – Express-Times, 14 January 2015
- ‘More studies needed on artificial turf fields, EPA says’ – New Haven Register, 21 December 2013
[Updated 18 Feb 2015]