Children need to spend time outdoors playing, exercising, and getting fresh air, especially during a pandemic when many are isolating at home. However, there is growing concern about the outdoor surfaces on which they play. Materials used in artificial turf can contain toxic chemicals and trap heat, leading to hazardous playing conditions. Grass playing fields, especially those that are maintained with organic practices, are a safer choice for children’s recreational spaces.
Many schools and communities face choices about whether to invest in natural grass fields or convert to artificial turf. Decision-making about play surfaces at the community level is often difficult, hindered by a lack of resources and by competing priorities. There can be confusion about the impacts of these choices on children’s health, costs, and playability.
The Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) has compiled information on this topic to create educational resources to help communities protect children’s health and their environment. TURI’s work is based on the principles of toxics use reduction, which focuses on identifying opportunities to protect public health and the environment by reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals. Below is a summary of TURI’s findings on safer athletic fields. To see TURI’s full list of resources on safer play surfaces, visit www.turi.org/artificialturf.
Artificial turf has several components, including synthetic grass carpet and infill that provides cushioning and keeps grass carpet blades standing upright. These materials can contain chemicals of concern.
Particular concerns have been raised about the use of recycled tire materials used as infill. Recycled tires contain a large number of chemicals, many of which are known to be hazardous to human health and the environment. These include polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); volatile organic compounds (VOCs); metals, such as lead and zinc; and other chemicals. Health effects of some of these chemicals can include cancer, hormone disruption, respiratory problems, and skin irritation. Alternative infills can also contain chemicals of concern. To learn more about chemicals in infill, see TURI’s report, Athletic Playing Fields: Choosing Safer Options for Health and the Environment. There are also concerns about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in artificial grass blades.
Children are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals because their organ systems are developing rapidly and their detoxification mechanisms are immature. Children also breathe more air per unit of body weight than adults, and are likely to have more hand-to-mouth exposure to environmental contaminants than adults. For these reasons, it is particularly important to make careful choices about children’s exposures.
There are several environmental concerns associated with artificial turf, including loss of wildlife habitat, contaminated runoff, and migration of synthetic materials. Contaminants that are harmful to aquatic life, such as zinc, have been found in stormwater runoff from artificial turf. Both infill particles and broken synthetic grass fibers can migrate away from playing fields, contributing to microplastic pollution. There are also problems with disposal and reuse of used artificial turf. Used synthetic turf is projected to produce between 1 million and 4 million tons of waste over the next decade.
Artificial turf can become much hotter than natural grass on a warm, sunny day. Experts note that high temperatures can lead to potentially life-threatening heat-related illnesses for athletes and other users. A number of studies have measured high temperatures on artificial turf, some as high as 160oF. Heat guidance is often based on air temperature and other factors, not including the temperature of the play surface, so the risk to athletes may be underestimated in many cases. Some communities, such as Burlington MA, choose to measure artificial turf surface temperatures to help determine conditions under which athletes may use artificial turf fields and the conditions under which their activities must be moved to grass fields. Learn more about this topic in TURI’s overview fact sheet, “Athletic Playing Fields and Artificial Turf: Considerations for Municipalities and Institutions.”
Natural Grass as a Safer Alternative
Natural grass can be a safer option for recreational spaces by eliminating many of the concerns noted above. Use of organic maintenance practices on playing fields also eliminates the need for toxic insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
Several communities use organic grass management on public properties such as schools and sports fields. In the Pittsburgh area, the Borough of Heidelberg began using organic maintenance for grass playing fields at Heidelberg Park in 2019, and has seen significant improvements in the quality of the fields. The Bethlehem Center School District is currently making improvements to its soccer field using organic practices. The Dan Marino field is transitioning their grass maintenance to organic land care methods. The Phipps Conservatory provides accreditation in sustainable land care. In Massachusetts, the Springfield Parks and Recreation Department, the Town of Marblehead, and the Field Fund in Martha’s Vineyard use organic practices to maintain numerous athletic fields in their communities. Field users and those in charge of maintenance are very satisfied with the quality and playability of these grass areas. Elements of these programs include frequent aeration and careful application of organic fertilizers based on site-specific needs.
In summary, artificial turf poses a number of health and environmental concerns. From an environmental and health standpoint, organically managed natural grass is a safer choice for playing fields. For more information, please visit www.turi.org/artificialturf, or send questions and requests for printed copies of written materials to TURI.
This guest blog post was written by our partners, Lindsey D. Pollard and Rachel Massey, from the Toxic Use Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. To learn more about their work, click here.