Since the introduction of AstroTurf in the 1960s, synthetic grass has been presented as a long-lasting, eco-friendly alternative to natural grass for athletic and recreational uses. Have “We the People” been deceived for over half a century, assuming these factory-made coverings were safe? Why have our children been given permission to roll around on these surfaces that contain known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors?
By Rick Rydell
Artificial (synthetic) turf, originally coined “ChemGrass,” from the Chemstrand Company, got its first big break in the 1960s on the baseball field. But it may be football and soccer―alongside health-conscious parents and professionals―that help turn the tide against this non-living, zero-oxygen-containing toxic surface.
U.S. military engineers discovered in the years after World War II that city-dwellers were less fit than their rural counterparts.To combat this lack of fitness, the Ford Foundation funded research for Monsanto to make artificial grass for cities. If urban citizens had the same sort of green spaces as country folk, the thought went, their exercise rates would increase.
In 1966, the Houston Astros were the first big purchasers, using fake green turf for their baseball field at the Houston Astrodome. And just like that, a new name was birthed—goodbye “ChemGrass”; hello “AstroTurf.”
The popularity of artificial playing surfaces exploded in the decades thereafter. Today, there are approximately 16,000 synthetic turf fields in the United States, and even more on the way; at least 1,500 new fields come into existence annually. It all adds up to a hefty paycheck for synthetic turf companies, including revenues of around $2.5 billion each year.
School districts and towns from small to large stake their claims on artificial turf for multiple reasons, including longevity, decreased water usage, fewer weeds, no mud, and year-round access. But concerns from a wide variety of voices―athletes, environmentalists, medical providers, soccer moms and football dads―are sounding the alarm: synthetic turf may not match up to its pristine, green image.
As early as the 1970s, professional athletes began telling others of their negative experiences with artificial turf. It acted like glue on athletes’ quickly-shifting feet and legs, leading to ripped tendons, blown-out knees, sprained ankles, and “rug burns” on exposed skin.
New turf technology eventually came along, but even that had its problems for the players. The NFL’s Injury & Safety Panel discovered that the league’s participants from 2002-2008 were 88 percent more likely to tear their ACLs and 32 percent more likely to sprain their ankles on the artificial turf than on natural grass.
Other studies, however, found no difference in injury rates between types of turf. Even if the studies proved to be true; if athletes were just as safe on synthetic turf as on grass, environmentalists, scientists, and parents had other worries about the factory-made coverings.
Let’s examine what the proponents of artificial grass claim about the man-made turf:
- Requires less water. Chemical blades of grass don’t need water to survive, obviously, making artificial turf more attractive to areas experiencing drought. Water savings is a prime reason that Disneyland, for example, is slowly phasing out its real grass areas. But any groundskeeper or dedicated athlete will tell you that fake turf heats up to scalding temperatures on hot days. The only way to cool it down to a safe temp? Water. A study out of New Mexico State University found that the amount of water needed to keep synthetic turf at temperatures similar to irrigated real grass is comparable.
- Lasts longer than grass fields. Artificial fields last anywhere from 8 to 12 years or beyond, but well-maintained natural grass fields can last more than 20 years before needing to be replaced. Additionally, despite many manufacturers’ claims, most elements of synthetic turf are not recyclable and typically end up at the dump.
- No weeding required, unlike natural grass. The reality, however, is that artificial turf companies’ websites often include sections on how to deal with weeds in fake fields. A common solution presented is the use of pesticides―negating the so-called advantage of going artificial in the first place.
As you can see, the claims don’t match up to real-world evidence. Other drawbacks to using synthetic turf include bird and other animal droppings not composting, an annoying odor (especially with indoor fields), unanticipated maintenance like gum removal, and a higher possibility of combustion than natural turf.
Let’s go deeper: The biggest drawback to plastic grass lies at the heart of its components: chemicals that last forever.
Rolling Around With PFAS
Artificial turf is typically comprised of three layers: backing material (the “bottom of the carpet”), obvious blades of grass, and “infill,” which are minute black bits that help support the blades. You may have seen the chunks (also called “crumb rubber”) fly up on slow-motion instant replays, especially in football. They’re usually crafted from old, chopped-up tires.
Let’s be clear…This is NOT a win for the environment. Multiple studies have shown that elements of artificial turf, including those recycled tires, often contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), otherwise known as “forever chemicals.”
PFAS earned its eternal moniker because they simply do not break down, and have been linked to cascading illnesses such as liver disease, significant issues with reproductive organs, developmental and cardiovascular issues, and compromised immunity.
Furthermore, after multiple soccer players had developed blood cancer around the same time, researchers at the University of Washington School of Public Health began studying whether exposure to PFAS via artificial turf could have connections to cancer clusters. After all, if you’re rolling around in chemicals―often breathing heavily from the effort of exercise—it’s no stretch to imagine respirating the chemicals.
Ken Foster, renowned permaculture teacher at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, CA, and founder of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping had this to say about synthetic turfs:
“Our kids are now expected to play on a low level toxic surface. During strenuous activities they breathe in these toxic chemicals. Because plastic is not an inert substance, it both leaches and off-gasses pieces of itself. Plastics are known to contain xenoestrogens that are endocrine disruptors. Exposure to xenoestrogens, which are found in pesticides, plastics and other industrial chemicals has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers in women, and to decreased testosterone levels and prostate cancer in men.”
The PFAS connection is concerning enough that the Netherlands decided to phase out artificial turf using crumb rubber by 2030. Other communities around the United States may follow suit. The urgency to learn more about chemical injury on human health is heightened when considering tires―of which the infill or crumb rubber is made―also contain hazardous metals and chemical compounds such as cadmium, benzene, nickel, chromium and arsenic.
Toxic Exposure In Our Schools
It’s not only sports leagues using these surfaces around the nation. Many schools, including elementary level—kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade—have installed artificial turfs for physical education and events. Even if your child is more “bookworm” than athlete, she or he may be spending significant amounts of time around PFAS; susceptible to toxic chemical exposure.
The debate about synthetic turf for students has drawn the attention of environmental heavyweights like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, both of which oppose the use of fake grass at elementary schools. The concerns of environmentalists and parents do get taken into consideration, as decisions to install artificial turfs have been postponed at schools around the country.
“People have said that the (Environmental Protection Agency) says that [synthetic turf is] not a problem, but this is the same EPA that said that the air at the World Trade Center after 9/11 was not a problem and now we have people dying from it,” said New York school board member Jonathan Fishbein at a 2021 school board meeting.
This is not benign, it’s not something that’s going to be kept in the field. Every time you slide across, play on, move, your sneakers are going to break off micro pieces, they’re going to pick it up and spread it. It’s just going to contribute to the plastic problem we already have which is a health hazard to us, to our kids and to our entire community.”
Environmental scientists concur:
“The shredded tires used as infill on fields are filled with carcinogens and other toxic chemicals, but PFAS in synthetic turf should sound alarm bells for all municipalities with these fields,” said Kyla Bennett, a science policy director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
There is indeed reason to at least question the expanding use of artificial turf, said Jeff Gearhart of the Michigan-based Ecology Center:
“The PFAS chemicals we are seeing in artificial turf grass carpet may just be the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We are concerned about the environmental fate and public health impacts of these chemicals from their use in both artificial turf and other products, and the life cycle impacts of the production and disposal of PFAS chemicals used in plastics.”
Plan Ahead: Prevent Unnecessary Exposure
If you find it impossible to escape romping around on artificial turf, there are simple steps you can take to lower your risk of exposure to “forever chemicals”:
- Wear proper footwear (no going barefoot)
- Wash hands and bodies thoroughly afterward, especially with on-the-ground sports like football
- Wash mouth guards or other face gear after every practice or game to prevent respiration or ingestion
- Keep water bottles off the turf
- Wear breathable long-sleeved shirts and athletic pants to limit skin exposure
- Keep babies and toddlers away from the surface, given their propensity to explore the world orally
- Shake out shoes and other gear that may have stowaway pieces of turf before entering your home
- Vacuum your vehicle regularly after practices, games, and tournaments
- Practice sports and play on your own natural grass to lower your time on artificial surfaces
What You Can Do Next
Stay ahead of this issue by knowing your local school’s and city’s stances on artificial turf. Educate others about the realities of synthetic grass, and consider banding together with like-minded neighbors and peers to bring your concerns to local decision-makers.
Look to Boston, the “City of Champions” as a model: They are “the largest municipality in the U.S. to ban astro turf in city parks.” Just like tiny bits of infill saturating a huge playing field, every little bit counts.