young people playing soccer

The (Artificial) Grass Is Not Greener

by Melissa Cooper Sargent

Back-to-school time is also back-to-sports time. Pack the snacks, grab the water bottles, toss the chairs and blankets in the car, it’s go time! You are ready to settle in to cheer on your young one and lay the blanket down on the sideline. But, what’s underneath? Grass? Or a plastic version of grass?

More and more often, it’s the plastic version of grass. Communities and facilities are opting for artificial turf citing financial reasons and ease of maintenance. In fact, there are between 12,000 and 13,000 synthetic turf sports fields in the U.S. right now. Each year a thousand more are installed.

Do we really know what our children are playing on? New testing done by the Ecology Center and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) shows hazardous chemicals present in artificial turf. Elemental fluorine and several per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were found in artificial turf, suggesting that PFAS is an ingredient of the carpet grass fibers or the backing, or a byproduct of the manufacturing process. PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and bio-accumulate in the food chain. Human exposures to PFAS are associated with cancer, birth defects, and other impairments. 

Multiple layers make up artificial turf. The base layer is called the backing. On top of the backing is the carpet/turf layer, which consists of plastic blades of grass. “Infill” is granular crumb rubber (made of shredded recycled tires) that’s added to the turf layer and lays within the blades of grass. Infill holds the blades upright, adds stability, and provides shock absorption. Each athletic field uses an estimated 40,000 shredded tires for infill.

More than a quarter of the nation’s scrap tires (62 million) are used as infill for artificial turf and other purposes such as molded “poured-in-place” playground surfaces and landscape mulch. For decades, research efforts focused on the toxicity of crumb rubber. In fact, a handful of playgrounds in Washington D.C. have recently been closed due to findings of high levels of lead in the crumb rubber surfaces. Studies also show polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are carcinogenic, present in crumb rubber.

The new testing examined the carpet or “grass” of artificial turf, revealing a previously unreported layer of toxicity. Some of the PFAS chemicals Ecology Center and PEER found in the artificial turf accumulate rapidly in both blood and liver and show toxic effects on cells according to PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and lawyer formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Exposure to PFAS chemicals may be a concern while the kids are running, sliding, falling, and playing on the artificial turf (and families are sitting on it). There is also a broader concern about the public health impacts associated with production and disposal of PFAS chemicals used in plastics. The PFAS footprint on the earth is large and growing, with an estimated 100 million Americans’ drinking water contaminated with PFAS.

We encourage turf manufacturers to immediately disclose whether they use PFAS in their manufacturing processes and implore communities, school boards, and facilities to consider health and environmental impacts when weighing the risks and benefits of artificial turf. The artificial grass is definitely not greener.