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Playing on Plastic: Artificial Turf Hazards and Safer Alternatives
From professional sports leagues to elementary schools and even day care centers, many communities have questions about the pros and cons of artificial turf. The National Football League’s Players Association president is advocating for natural grass fields, citing higher injury rates on artificial turf fields. Some communities have adopted moratoria on turf installation, while some are making plans to invest in new, sustainably managed natural grass fields.
In this blog, we’ll briefly review some of the growing concerns about artificial turf – including chemicals in rubber and plastic turf components, microplastic pollution, and excess heat.
Chemicals in artificial turf
Artificial turf is composed of several layers, including a carpet backing, carpet fibers (artificial grass blades made from plastic), and an infill material that is used to provide cushioning and help hold the carpet fibers upright. These materials can contain a variety of chemicals of concern.
Testing has shown the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in artificial grass blades (carpet fibers) and carpet backing. Taking action on PFAS contamination is a high priority in many states. On a local level, some communities have used independent laboratory testing and detected PFAS in artificial turf marketed as PFAS-free. Other communities are concerned that water runoff from artificial turf may be contributing to elevated PFAS concentrations in drinking water.
Infills are often made from waste tires. Waste tire material contains a variety of toxic chemicals, including polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); metals such as lead and cadmium; antiozonants such as 6-phenylenediamine (6PPD); and a range of other chemicals, including vulcanization compounds, stabilizers, and fillers. Some of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens; others are associated with asthma, endocrine disruption, and other health effects.
Other materials used as infills include other types of rubber or plastic; mineral-based materials such as sand or zeolite; and plant-based materials including wood, coconut fibers, and cork, among others. In our 2020 review of infill materials, we found that some alternative materials are likely to be preferable to waste tires, but we were not able to identify any that were entirely free of concerns. For example, alternative rubber and plastic products can also contain a variety of toxic chemicals, and zeolite poses inhalation hazards.
Artificial turf disposal
Artificial turf fields generally last for about a decade. After this point the turf – tens of thousands of pounds of material per field – has to be disposed of and replaced. In their 2017 technical guidelines for recycling, the Synthetic Turf Council states that an average artificial athletic field uses 400,000 pounds of infill and 40,000 pounds of turf carpet. The guidelines also estimate that between 2013 and 2018, 365 to 750 artificial turf fields were deconstructed annually, with approximately 750 per year expected in future years as well. The authors note that “the amount of material to be handled is enormous.”
Recycling is a challenge for the artificial turf industry. Investigative journalists have uncovered multiple examples of large quantities of waste athletic turf being stockpiled informally. A 2019 investigation by the York Daily Record noted that “used artificial turf is expected to produce 1 million to 4 million tons of waste in the next 10 years.” Press reports also described a large stockpile of waste artificial turf in Cleona, Pennsylvania – noting that the “8- to 9-foot tall pile of turf rolls is a borough block wide.” Residents of Newton, Massachusetts recently filmed the collection of waste turf and the release of tire crumb into the surrounding environment throughout the process.
In a new industry initiative, some waste artificial turf will be sent to an “advanced recycling” facility in Baytown, TX. There are possible plans for another such facility in Baton Rouge, LA. So-called “advanced recycling” is a problematic and highly polluting technology in which waste plastics and related materials are processed at high temperatures to create fuels and other byproducts.
Artificial turf, microplastics, and ocean pollution
As a recent article by health professionals Dr. Brita Lundberg, Sydney Engel, and Dr. Philip Landrigan explains, “The term “turf” is misleading. This material has no relationship to actual turf or grass. It is basically a scrap chemical product.”
The Sports Turf Managers Association estimated in their 2020 Synthetic Turf Market Report for North America that 265 million square feet of turf and 777 million pounds of infill had been installed in North America. Several parts of an artificial turf system generate plastic pollution as the product degrades over time. Rubber or plastic particles migrate off the artificial turf area and into surrounding areas; parents and residents living near artificial turf fields have collected photographic evidence of waste tire particles dispersed in wetlands and filling storm drains. As plastics continue to break down in the environment, they can contribute to microplastic pollution.
Microplastics are a source of growing concern in the scientific community, with evidence of their presence in babies’ feces and even in breastmilk. A recent review of the scientific literature by the California State Policy Evidence Consortium concluded “microplastics are suspected to promote deleterious human health effects in the reproductive and digestive systems,” among other human health concerns.
Plastic grass blades pollute water resources and gradually break down into increasingly small pieces. A recent study examined the sources of plastic debris found in sea water off the coast of Barcelona. Artificial grass fibers “accounted for 15 percent of plastic pieces larger than 5 millimetres in the samples from within 1 kilometre of the shore,” according to a summary of the study in New Scientist. “The authors identify artificial turf as “a major source of plastic pollution in the aquatic environment.”
In April 2023, the European Commission moved forward with a proposal to restrict intentionally added microplastics in artificial turf and other products. (To read the proposed restriction, which is expected to be finalized soon, see the Annex on microplastics at this link.)
Artificial turf and heat hazards
Even for children who play sports just occasionally, parents should be aware of the heat hazards posed by artificial turf. On a warm, sunny day, artificial turf becomes much hotter than natural grass. Surface temperatures can rise to 120 or even 180 degrees F, depending on weather conditions. High temperatures can burn skin, damage shoes, and increase children’s risk of serious heat-related illnesses. Elevated temperatures can also increase volatilization of toxic chemicals from the rubber or plastic materials. For more information, see this fact sheet.
“Such high temperatures pose a serious health hazard, especially to children running and playing at high intensity. Children are less able to adapt to heat than adults and are therefore more likely to experience heat illness, including dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, when exposed to extreme heat. The recent spike in student athlete deaths due to heat stroke underscores this risk."
Natural grass fields: A viable, safer alternative
Organically or sustainably managed natural grass is a practical, affordable, and safer alternative to artificial turf. For institutions and communities working to decide how best to allocate resources, it may be useful to review case studies of communities that have chosen to invest in sustainably managed natural grass fields.
A recent article highlights new investments in pesticide-free parks in New York. Across the country, communities are making choices in favor of sustainable and organic natural grass fields and safer play spaces – you can browse information about many of these communities on the website of the Non Toxic Communities network. Investing in healthy soil and a healthy grass ecosystem helps to support climate resiliency and protect air quality.
For more background on artificial turf and safer alternatives, see our 2022 webinar. In future blogs, we’ll explore how communities are making choices about athletic fields and open space, and we’ll take a closer look at the latest science on chemicals found in artificial turf.
Rachel Massey, ScD is Senior Science and Policy Advisor at the Collaborative for Health and Environment. She has worked at the intersection of public interest science and policy making in state, national and international arenas. Prior to joining CHE she served as Senior Associate Director at the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute.
Lindsey Pollard, MS is a Research Associate at the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Her work includes research on chemical hazards and alternatives assessment for consumer and industrial applications. Prior to joining the Lowell Center, Lindsey worked as a researcher at the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute, and in the field and lab as an aquatic ecologist at Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute.