Science Opposes Artificial Turf
To the Editor:
As the Board of Education of the Sag Harbor School District considers the installation of synthetic turf on the Pierson High School and Middle School property, it is important to be aware of the current controversy surrounding these fields. As the Executive Director of Grassroots Environmental Education, a Long Island-based and nationally recognized environmental health non-profit organization, I (Patti Wood) would like to share the following information, based on the emerging science.
Synthetic turf fields have been around since the introduction of “Astro Turf” at the Houston Astrodome in 1965. Since then, almost 12,000 turf fields have been installed in communities around the country, most utilizing recycled crumb rubber made from used tires as a cushioning material.
The benefits of synthetic turf, as touted by their manufacturers, include 24/7 use, all-weather play, a safer surface resulting in fewer injuries, and a maintenance-free field with no need for mowing, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. This pitch makes the allure totally understandable.
The emerging science presents a more sobering reality. A typical football field can utilize crumb rubber from as many as 40,000 recycled tires. Tires are made from some very toxic chemicals, including the known carcinogens arsenic, benzene, carbon black (which makes up to 40% of a tire), 1,3 butadiene, TCE and cadmium, as well as neurotoxins lead and mercury. Crumb rubber dust and small pieces are easily inhaled or swallowed as they become disturbed during game play.
The green plastic field “carpet” and “grass blades” of synthetic turf are frequently impregnated with or treated topically with antimicrobial chemicals (legally defined as pesticides) to address body fluid contamination and antibiotic-resistant staph infections like MRSA. Flame retardant chemicals (to address the high flammability of rubber and increasing acts of arson vandalism) and anti-static chemicals are also now regularly added to human carcinogens. Infill materials, such as crumb rubber and sand, provide an opportunity for harmful bacteria to multiply to potentially dangerous levels. Naturally maintained grass fields require no chemical use and beneficial soil microbes deal effectively with body fluids.
Statistics show that injuries are actually more common on synthetic turf surfaces, especially those that are not constantly maintained for resiliency. The G-max rating — the ability to absorb impact — changes as the materials are compacted, often leaving an unsafe, harder surface that makes injuries more likely and more severe. Injuries cited include joint trauma (especially ankles and knees), “turf toe,” unusually large skin abrasions which are more prone to infection and concussions. These are some of the reasons that the majority of professional athletes prefer natural grass.
Then there are the heat issues. Studies at Brigham Young University showed that synthetic turf averaged 37 degrees hotter than asphalt and 86.5 degrees hotter that natural grass. On a hot, sunny day, synthetic fields can reach a temperature of 180-200 degrees. Serious heat-related illnesses and actual burns occurring on the soles of the feet of athletes have spurred turf manufacturers to sell water canons for cooling the fields, even though the water only reduces the temperature for about 20 minutes, at which time the process has to be repeated. Heat also increases the outgassing of volatile chemicals, which makes them more problematic as an inhalation exposure.
Lastly, there are a growing number of reports of higher than usual cases of lymphoma and leukemia among athletes playing on synthetic turf, especially soccer goalies, who regularly dive onto the turf, releasing dust and infill particles. While to date no studies have been conducted to confirm a link, common sense tells us that chemicals in tires that are linked to serious health problems should be avoided.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Consumer Product Safe Commission (CPSC) have removed safety assurances of synthetic turf from their websites. Both houses of Congress have called for further studies and on February 12, 2016 the EPA, the CSPC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) launched a multi-agency action plan to study key environmental human health questions regarding synthetic turf.
In light of the serious health issues mentioned above, professional sports teams and local school districts and parks all over the country are choosing natural grass fields, some replacing existing synthetic turf (at great expense) and utilizing state of the art techniques and equipment to build natural grass fields and some renovating existing grass fields to a higher standard.
At Grassroots Environmental Education, we embrace the Precautionary Principle, which states, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” In other words, when evidence gives us good reason to believe that an activity, technology or substance may be harmful, we should act to prevent harm.
I applaud the deliberate and careful consideration administrators and the school board are taking with regard to this critical issue and I strongly urge them to continue to prioritize the health of our children when weighing benefits vs. risks.
Grassroots Environmental Education