Natural Grass Is Getting Competition These Days

Sam Koch - Columnist
Posted on Thursday 12th November 2009

Each year, approximately 1,000 new artificial turf fields are built in the United States. The advantages that synthetic turf provides—reduced maintenance of fields, better playing conditions for athletes, and the ability of fields to be used year round—are tempting, particularly for schools that are looking to stand out from the crowd and attract athletes to their programs. The protection that artificial turf allows against harsh weather, particularly in the Northeast, is extremely enticing to those who play sports during cold seasons. Whether they are private high schools or big-name universities, synthetic turf is attractive in many ways.

For all its popularity, however, synthetic turf remains extremely controversial. The materials used to build synthetic turf fields may be harmful to humans, and can include dangerous amounts of lead, mercury, and other chemicals than can be leeched into the soil or carried off in rainwater run-off after installation. Concerns over the fields’ chemical components have created mounting pressure on regulatory agencies and local government to commence investigations of artificial turf. Responding to these pressures, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last year that it would begin investigating the possible dangers associated with artificial and synthetic-turf, but their findings have yet to be completed or officially filed. Given the remarkable rate at which artificial turfs are built, it’s hard to believe that an agency like the EPA has decided to take its time in determining—officially—the pros and cons of the fields.

One type of synthetic turf uses tire particles, plastic pellets, or sand as its base materials to imitate dirt and soil. Despite its natural look, these synthetic turf fields still create multiple health and safety considerations such as an increased risk of injury, infection, latex allergy, and chemical exposure. Artificial turf has had a long history of controversial consequences, particularly AstroTurf. These health risks are notable and documented, as an abnormally high incidence of knee injuries earlier this decade led the NFL and other major sporting leagues to reduce the utilization of AstroTurf in stadiums across the country. While synthetic turf, particularly ones that look and feel like natural grass, have yet to be proven as outright injury-inducing, the point is that new field surfaces are often only called into question after harm is done.

While there are many potential hazards that haven’t been explored just yet, synthetic turf fields—even well-designed ones—have been proven to become excessively warm in short periods of time. Studies done by universities across the country found average temperatures of in-filled synthetic turfs to be over 130 degrees Fahrenheit, with an upper limit of 200 degrees. The amount of stress on the human body that these temperatures create poses a threat to anyone who works or plays in those conditions. The consequences and harms of these fields must be outlined clearly, particularly for the athletes who spend large amounts of time on them.

Though the EPA hasn’t fully researched the potential hazards of synthetic turf, it has argued that synthetic fields give a second life to millions of tires that would have otherwise found their way to landfills. But the chemicals found in these used tires—as well as the harms they cause via heat stress, infections, and injury—are causes for concern, not only because of the potential for human harm, but also because of its potential impact on the environment.

No official studies have been made to determine whether or not synthetic or artificial fields pose a threat to the environment; however, toxins like lead and mercury generally aren’t ideal for any habitat. The EPA and other health and environmental organizations should be encouraged to conduct research regarding these possibilities and publish their findings—good or bad—for the general public’s knowledge.

Right now, research into the risks associated with turf fields has been stalled, which may have contributed to the recent proliferation of such fields across the country. Potential consumers don’t see legitimate reports detailing the environmental impact of turf fields—not because there are no risks, but because the pertinent studies have been delayed. What they do see is the bottom line: that the implementation of a turf field can save an institution up to $20,000 per year in maintenance fees over its grass counterparts.

It may turn out that there is nothing wrong with synthetic turf fields, and that many of the parameters deemed harmful could very well be within acceptable limits or may represent acceptable risk. But until organizations such as the EPA and other consumer protection agencies step up to provide adequate information, consumers are at the mercy of whatever fields are available.

Whether artificial turf is good or bad, research has to be done and done now.

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