Are Synthetic Playing Surfaces Doing More Harm Than Good?

Written by Tamela Trussell, founder of Move Past Plastic (MPP),
                       with contributions by Jim Wylie, PA Chapter Vice Chair

Municipal recreation and athletic directors all over the country are enamored by the marketing of synthetic playing surfaces (SPS). Artificial turf and pour-in place playgrounds are the most widely used types.  Unified playing surface companies claim they are easier to maintain, safer, and look better than traditional alternatives like organically managed natural grass fields and Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF) playgrounds. These playing surfaces offer a sense of prestige and have become the must have new “toy.” But are these playing surfaces safe for our youth and the surrounding environment? For decades our regulating bodies have not weighed in on the subject.  A 2019 study by the EPA acknowledged the presence of toxic chemicals in synthetic turf. This is just one of many regulating bodies, scientists, and organizations that are acknowledging numerous harms from tire waste and plastic playing surfaces.

These surfaces are not regulated or third party tested for their safety claims.  Health harms range from impact injuries, burns, and exposures to toxic chemicals. These products are more expensive than alternatives. They are toxic to the health of our watersheds. All of these problems expose the schools, municipalities and businesses to the risk of future litigation

Chemicals like Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been found in artificial grass blades and to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and The Ecology Center. These are considered a “forever” chemical that bioaccumulates in our environment and is linked to dozens of health impacts including cancer, birth defects, increased cholesterol and preeclampsia. We talked with Dr Kyla Bennett, Director, Science Policy at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to get her input on many of these topics.

Injuries and equipment damage from synthetic turf
[Image used with permission from Safe Healthy Playing Fields ]

The US women's world cup winning soccer team fought to play on natural grass fields due to Synthetic Turf Injuries. Severe skin abrasions that get more infected from the bacteria and toxic chemicals cause these injuries a longer time to heal and have long term health impacts. Stress on ligaments, tendons, and joints are increased. “Grass is a lot easier on the body, and when you’re playing on turf, the ball is flying all over the place,” U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday said. “In your mind, you are thinking, ‘This is how it rolls on grass. This is how it rolls on turf.’ ”  Players report feeling more  achy, taking longer to recover on artificial turf.

The American Academy of Pediatricians declared, "Synthetic Playing Fields for Sports May Pose Increased Risk of Concussion in Youth" 37 of their 51 artificial turf fields in DC, Washington failed 2017 safety tests, due to hardness scores above 165.

Artificial turf creates heat islands. Heat Levels can reach as much as 180’F!  This added stress on the body makes sports susceptible to more risks including heat exhaustion and stroke.  A skinned knee is a burnt knee.

BYU surface temperature study
Image use with permission of Sports Field Management Association

Exposure to Toxins
Players are subjected to long term health impacts from exposure to unsafe levels of lead, mercury, cadmium, and other known carcinogens.  The “recycled” rubber tire turf contains additional hazardous organic chemicals including polyaromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, flame retardants (PFAS), UV inhibitors, phthalates, antioxidants (e.g. BHT, phenols), benzothiazole, Per & Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), derivatives and other chemicals. The “Final Report on Technical Support Activities for a Screening-Level Risk Assessment of Playgrounds” identified eleven exposures from inhalation, dermal and oral, to youth playing on unified playing surfaces. 

Dr. Sarah Evans, assistant professor of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai School summarizes the contradictory information, "We know for a fact that artificial turf contains chemicals that are harmful to human health including carcinogens and neurotoxins. Consumers are often unaware of these risks because manufacturers aren’t required to disclose a full list of chemical ingredients and sufficient studies to assess exposure and safety of play on these surfaces have not been done. For these reasons, we recommend natural grass fields as the safest option for play.” 

Our youth are already exposed to a cocktail of harmful chemicals from other plastics. Putting them in direct contact to inhale, have skin contact to more is a gross negligence. The Stockholm Convention states that chemicals and plastic pollution is exceeding its planetary boundaries.  Youth are more susceptible to these harms when they are developing and inhaling more through rigorous activity.

There are a growing number of lawsuits targeting artificial turf manufacturers alleging that exposure to turf has caused cancer later in life. Why would a school take on this liability risk, let alone the risk to the health of their students?

As described in recent articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer, at least 6 Philadelphia Phillies that played on the artificial turf at Vet Stadium contracted glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. All were younger than 60 when they died. The belief is that the high temperatures on the field accelerated the release of toxic vapors from the turf and the everyday exposure by the players put them at a higher risk. The rate of brain cancer among Phillies who played at the Vet between 1971 and 2003 is about three times the average rate among adult men. 

In addition to litigation for health harms schools and universities are suing the top artificial turf companies for the fields deteriorating before their warranties. Plaintiff Neshannock Township School District, filed a class action complaint against FieldTurf USA, Inc., FieldTurf Inc., and FieldTurf Tarkett SAS. 

Various states have banned or have proposed bans on artificial turf such as Massachusetts, Arizona, California.

Turf Is Not Regulated
Artificial turf products are unregulated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that artificial turf is one of seven sources of lead exposure for youth.  Both the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have pulled back from their previous statements on artificial turf, acknowledging the multiple concerns raised by the scientific and public communities about the product.

Should municipalities and schools assume that if something is unregulated that it must be safe? Dr. Bennet says “The absence of evidence is not the same thing as the evidence of absence. There are NUMEROUS peer-reviewed studies - and studies from the federal government - talking about the number of carcinogens in crumb rubber infill. Moreover, the jury has reached a verdict on PFAS, and we know that there is no safe level of some of them, including some of the PFAS we find in turf. For those saying "if it were hazardous they would be regulated," they are uninformed. Look at asbestos, formaldehyde, glyphosate, 1,4-dioxane, perchlorate, PFAS, and a slew of chemicals that are hazardous and not regulated well at all. And, PFAS are being regulated, slowly but surely.” The “precautionary principle” should be applied when considering the safety and well being of our children.
Regulations are in the works. According to Dr. Bennet, “We only discovered PFAS in artificial turf in 2019. It takes years for regulation to catch up with science. In addition, the synthetic turf lobby and tire industries are rich and they lobby. Yes, they will be outlawed soon. There are bills pending in CA, MA, CT, VT and a host of other states to ban artificial turf.”

Environmental Impact
The environment loses out as well. The surrounding watershed and soil are exposed to the same toxins. The soil that took thousands of years to establish becomes a wasteland void of life from impacting the soil and the turf smothering it. As much as 441-772 pounds of plastic grass blades degrade and enter our air, water, and soil per field every year, according to the International Association for Sports and Leisure Facilities. Contaminated runoff and migration of synthetic materials causes loss of wildlife habitat

Turf is inundating our landfills.  Many will not accept the turf and it is illegally dumped and contributes to storm water problems.

Kathleen Michels, co-founder of Safe and Healthy Playing Field, laments, “Many schools, municipalities, and parents are faced with decisions on creating healthy and safe play and sports fields. Grass fields are safe, cool, healthy, oxygenate the air and filter and clean water, and can be constructed and maintained to take as much use as needed. However, many have been sold the false promises of no or low maintenance and 24/7/365 use of plastic carpeted fields. Such sales pitches turn out to be myths.”
Synthetic turf ( or synturf-  we never say "turf" for plastic carpets -the industry has co-opted the word 'turf' which actually means real grass)  is the cash cow of the petrochemical and plastics industries because of the volume of plastics, petroleum and chemicals that  go into making these enormous plastic shag carpets with short functional lives but huge waste and climate footprints.

It is said that  "Plastic is climate change in solid form" now apply that to acres of plastic carpeting  for each plastic synturf field.

Total Cost of Ownership
The equipment, supplies, and labor Costs of Grass Vs. Synthetic Turf can be slightly more but those expenses are drastically reduced when including required “additional infill, irrigation because of unacceptably high temperatures on warm-sunny days, chemical disinfectants, sprays to reduce static cling and odors, drainage repair and maintenance, erasing and repainting temporary lines and removing organic matter accumulation.” according to SHPF.  Most turf owners are not aware that it needs to be cleaned every 2 - 4 weeks.  If you include the replacement of turf every 8-10 years, natural grass is $250,000 less expensive.

Poured-in place rubber, PIPR costed $6.59 to $19/sq ft in 2012 versus Engineered Wood Fibers, EWF $ 0.74 to $2.50/sq ft for material only. Installation cost are much more expensive because the installer must be specially trained/certified by the manufacturer for PIPR verses EWF that can be installed by contractor or park/facility personnel.

Conclusion - Go Grass and ADA Compliant Engineered Wood Fiber
How is are these synthetic playing surfaces safe for our children to play on when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and  and Consumer Product Safety Center(CPSC) recommend youth avoid mouth contact due to possible choking hazard & chemical exposure, wash hands before handling food, limit the time on extremely hot days, clean skin, clothes, and toys after visiting the playground.

Our youth and environmental health should not pay for trying to be healthy, bond with friends, and learn discipline. Our community should not pay for the catastrophic destruction of what we love and cherish, our children and nature.  The “precautionary principle” should be applied when considering the safety and well being of our children. Natural grass and engineered wood fiber are safe and are cost competitive with plastic products.