Safer Sports Fields: A Win for Healthy Schools!

More and more recently, PA schools are opting to install artificial turf sports fields without considering the benefits of a natural grass field.

Often, the arguments against natural grass fields rely on the perceived costs and efforts of maintaining a natural grass field. But natural grass fields, when maintained with a specialized plan combining best practices of drainage, soil aeration, and grass selection, can sustain high usage while reducing hours of maintenance. Best of all, grass fields are often safer and healthier for student athletes to play on. We have come a long way in understanding the science behind maintaining a successful high-use grass sports field, including choosing grass that fits your school’s unique environment, and using innovative techniques so that groundskeepers and field managers work smarter, not harder.

You can watch our video with pediatrician and children’s environmental health expert Dr. Phil Landrigan discussing artificial turf in schools here.

Artificial turf fields can come with a host of unintended negative consequences. Depending on the in-fill material, artificial turf fields can release a long list of toxins when heated. Crumb rubber, made from recycled tires, and synthetic rubber, remain the most common in-fill materials for artificial turf fields. When heated, these rubber-based fillers can release 1,3-Butadiene, a major chemical component of tires – that burnt rubber tire smell – and a known carcinogen. Butadiene is not the only chemical released when rubber in-fill is heated; a meta-analysis by the Environment and Human Health Inc. found 92 chemicals of which 11 are known carcinogens.

Another health hazard that comes with artificial turf fields are the extreme temperatures that they can reach. On hot days, artificial turf fields absorb and hold heat, and can reach temperatures up to 190 degrees Fahrenheit really quickly. A turf field study by the University of Arkansas found that when the outdoor ambient temperature was 98 degrees Fahrenheit, an artificial turf field read at 199 degrees Fahrenheit – 100 degrees hotter! These sustained high temperatures have caused heat stroke and dehydration for student athletes, especially for younger school-aged children who are playing hard.

Lastly, artificial turf fields also need to be maintained. If in-fill isn’t continuously replaced, the risk for concussions can increase. The in-fill pieces are small and can be kicked up, cause scrapes and bruises. Turf fields also use a variety of chemicals to be maintained. Since most artificial grass and in-fill are made of flammable materials, harmful flame retardants are often added. Disinfectants are also sprayed on these fields as a recommended preventive maintenance activity.

Some communities are beginning to proactively ban crumb rubber artificial turf fields. If your school is looking for a new sports field to sustain high-use and longer play times, push your school board, athletic directors, and buildings and grounds directors to consider some alternatives. The Toxic Use Reduction Institute has an evidence-based booklet presenting the newest evidence and comparing different in-fill alternatives.