Artificial Turf Wars

Both athletes and environmentalists agree that artificial turf playing fields provide a good, green alternative to grass. Here’s why: artificial turf doesn’t need fertilizer or pesticide-intensive upkeep. It also doesn’t suffer as much from the wear and tear that running, jumping, kicking and tackling athletes inflict. The fields last longer and athletes are less likely to have a career-ending injury by tripping in a hole or getting a cleat stuck in the mud.

But not all artificial turf is created equal. A New Haven, Connecticut environmental group, Environment and Human Health Incorporated (EHHI), recently created a stir by recommending a moratorium on any new installation of artificial turf fields with crumb rubber infill.

The infill, designed to provide cushioning, has some green credibility because it’s made of recycled rubber tires, but it poses a human health risk,says EHHI President Nancy Alderman. The group commissioned the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) to test for any leaching of harmful chemicals as a result of heat or water contact. Artificial turf fields heat at a higher rate than natural grass when exposed to sunlight, and Alderman says parents are concerned about possible gas inhalation.

Analytical chemist Mary Jane Mattina and her team at CAES found several compounds being emitted by the tire crumbs when subjected to heat, three of which can cause skin and eye irritation in large amounts, and one known carcinogen. When the crumbs were soaked in water, the team found significant amounts of leached zinc, which can affect soil and ground water. Selenium, lead and cadmium were also present in much smaller amounts. Mattina said she was not sure whether the same amounts of chemicals would leach under normal playing conditions.

“When I stand back and look at these data, my conclusion is that more research is needed,” Mattina says. “That might be problematic for people, but the work so far isn’t able to say if [crumb rubber infill] should be condemned or condoned.”

EHHI’s recommendations in Connecticut have caused school boards to halt plans for new field construction, and New York legislators are considering a similar moratorium. However, not all public officials and parents are sure the fields pose a significant concern. City officials in Larchmont, New York gave the go-ahead for new synthetic turf construction in a town park late last year.

Holly Schachner, a pediatric endocrinologist, says that there is no data linking crumb rubber with cancer. “Obesity is a bigger problem [for children],” she said during a public comment period at the meeting.

Despite the inconclusive data, Alderman and EHHI say fields should be condemned until it’s certain they are safe. Their recommendation is for organically maintained grass fields. “Before we spend all this money, and possibly endanger children’s health, let’s find out more,” Alderman says.