Since the early part of the 21st century there has been a large trend towards installing the new generation of synthetic turf. This is a (2013) update of an article I wrote in 2009. We have learned a lot and we have plenty more to learn on this subject that will be debated for years to come. This new generation of Astro Turf with names like ‘Eco Turf’’ and ‘Omni Turf’ is being touted as the newest in ‘green’ landscaping. To be sure, there is an impressive list of ecological and access concerns that this turf addresses including:
• no need to water or mow
• no need to install irrigation
• no need to use pesticides to control weeds
• no need to fertilize
• no need to haul away grass clippings.
Some synthetic turf is even made from recycled plastic and is recyclable at the end of its life.
In addition to these benefits synthetic turf fields are used in New York City parks because they:
• Provide even playing surfaces
• Have padding that helps prevent injuries
• Can be used year-round and in most weather
• Do not need to be closed to protect or re-sod grass
• Last a long time with little maintenance
That’s the ‘Pro’ list and if I stopped here we might all run out and buy us some plastic grass because it looks like we have solved a bunch of issues all with one product, so what’s not to like?
Stepford Lawns = pseudo green product
Remember the movie, The Stepford Wives? There’s a part in the movie where one of the Stepford wives gets stabbed and it messes with her wiring and she starts repeating, “I thought we were friends, I thought we were friends.” That’s what I imagine synthetic turf is saying when I stab it with my accusations of it being a pseudo green product.
I’ll start with the deceptively simple argument that my primary distrust of synthetic turf is based on the fact that it is not alive. It does not breathe and therefore it offers no oxygen as a byproduct. On a hot day plastic turf smells like, well, plastic.
The Cons: The downside of fantastic plastic
I have ridden my bicycle past synthetic playing fields on a warm day and the whole neighborhood reeks of melting, off-gassing plastic. Not an enjoyable smell. It certainly is not aromatherapy unless of course you’re from the town of Stepford.
Synthetic turf often includes crumbled automobile tires called ‘infill’ to mimic the look and feel of soil. The “grass” is held upright and given some cushioning by adding a layer of recycled tire rubber. This infill is made up of particles 3 mm in diameter or smaller. Cool, a new way to recycle tires? Not so fast.
Chemicals of Potential Concern
The crumb rubber used in synthetic turf systems is made primarily from recycled waste tires. The tires themselves contain several chemicals of potential concern COPCs, and undergo minimal processing to become crumb rubber. Direct and indirect methods have been used in studies to determine the presence of these COPCs in the crumb rubber. These studies have found polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs), benzothiazole, and certain metals. Studies have also identified phthalates, alkylphenols and benzene, which likely become bonded to tires during their use. Direct analyses confirming the presence of these COPCs in crumb rubber have used vigorous extraction methods. Some COPCs have been identified through indirect methods including analysis of leachate in the environment near where recycled tire products were used or in controlled laboratory studies. Because crumb rubber is a recycled material, the presence and concentrations of COPCs is expected to vary between products and even among batches from the same manufacturer.*
For the COPCs in the crumb rubber to be a health concern for users of the fields, users would have to be exposed to high enough concentrations to increase the risk for health effects. The three possible routes of exposure for COPCs from crumb rubber are inhalation, ingestion and dermal absorption. Crumb rubber, or the dust generated from crumb rubber, may be accidentally ingested by placing fingers in the mouth or not washing hands before eating and after playing on the fields. Young children on the fields may eat the crumb rubber itself. Dust may be breathed in from playing on the field, or vapors that volatilize from the turf may also be inhaled. Some COPCs may also be absorbed through the skin by direct contact.*
Children, especially very young children, have many characteristics which make them uniquely vulnerable to environmental exposures. Children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults in the same environment and physical activity adds an additional factor to exposure through inhalation. Children also engage in hand-to-mouth behavior and very young children may eat nonfood items, such as rubber crumbs while on the fields. The protective keratinized layer of the skin is not as well developed in children and increases dermal absorption of COPCs as well as increasing evaporative loss of water on hot days. Children also have many more years to develop diseases with long latency periods after exposure. Risk assessments looking at inhalation, ingestion, dermal absorption and the risk for heat stress would have to combine these considerations to be as conservative as possible.*
Patti Wood, executive director of the nonprofit Grassroots Environmental Education, argues, “This crumb rubber is a material that cannot be legally disposed of in landfills or ocean-dumped because of its toxicity. Why on earth should we let our children play on it?” **
Our kids are now expected to play on a low level toxic surface. During strenuous activities they breathe in these toxic off gasses. Because plastic is not an inert substance, it both leaches and off-gasses pieces of itself. Plastics are known to contain xenoestrogens (zeno estrogens) that are endocrine disruptors. Exposure to xenoestrogens, which are found in pesticides, plastics and other industrial chemicals has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers in women and to decreased testosterone levels and prostate cancer in men. The damaging effects have been found in birds, fish, reptiles, rodents and humans. Exposure to even small amounts of environmental endocrine disruptors concern scientists because hormones such as estrogen act in the body at very low levels measured in parts per billion. This endocrine disruptor, xenoestrogen, can wreak havoc with the puberty cycle in the human body. With synthetic turf, there is direct and close contact with the lungs and skin of the growing bodies of children. This would not seem to me to be a great combination. When will we know if there is a detrimental effect on human health from synthetic turf? Unfortunately the jury is out and won’t report back for years to come. Just call our kids guinea kids.
There is some evidence to suggest that synthetic turf may harbor more bacteria than natural turf. For example, an industry study sponsored by Sprinturf, a maker of synthetic turf, found that infill containing a sand/rubber mixture had 50,000 times higher levels of bacteria than infill made of rubber alone. To address this, the company markets synthetic turf that is “sand-free” as a safer alternative and offers sanitation for those fields already installed. **
The low maintenance myth
The inconvenient truth about athletes is that they fall, spit, sweat and bleed. Since there is an absence of biological life as there would be with growing plants and living soil the sweat and blood or heaven forbid the dog pee does not have the checks and balances of a living system. Consequently Synthetic turf fields have to be doused with antimicrobial solution and washed down.
Proper maintenance of synthetic turf requires that the fields be sanitized to remove bodily fluids and animal droppings; manufacturers market sanitizing products for this purpose. According to Synthetic Turf Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual, published in 2006 by the American Sports Builders Association, some synthetic turf owners disinfect their fields as often as twice a month, with more frequent cleanings for sideline areas, where contaminants concentrate. **
The ‘heat island effect’ increased
Because the stuff is not living and breathing, the cooling effect is absent and thus the phenomenon known as the heat island effect is increased. The ‘heat island’ refers to urban air and surface temperatures that are higher than those of nearby rural areas.
One drawback that both fans and critics of synthetic turf agree on is that these fields can get much hotter than natural grass. Stuart Gaffin, an associate research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University, initially became involved with the temperature issues of synthetic turf fields while conducting studies for another project on the cooling benefits of urban trees and parks. Using thermal satellite images and geographic information systems, Gaffin noticed that a number of the hottest spots in the city turned out to be synthetic turf fields.**
The images below comparing air, water, bermudagrass, sand, asphalt, and synthetic turf surface temperatures illustrate how hot a synthetic field can reach during a warm day.
Direct temperature measurements conducted during site visits showed that synthetic turf fields can get up to 60° hotter than grass, with surface temperatures reaching 160°F on summer days. For example, on 6 July 2007, a day in which the atmospheric temperature was 78°F in the early afternoon, the temperature on a grass field that was receiving direct sunlight was 85°F while an adjacent synthetic turf field had heated to 140°F. “Exposures of ten minutes or longer to surface temperatures above 122°F can cause skin injuries, so this is a real concern,” said Joel Forman, medical director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, speaking at a 6 December 2007 symposium on the issue. **
In addition to heat control, the International Hockey Federation requires that college teams saturate with water synthetic turf fields before each practice and game to increase traction, according to an article in the 19 October 2007 Raleigh (North Carolina) News & Observer. The article, which examined why local universities were watering their synthetic turf fields in the midst of severe ongoing drought in the U.S. Southeast, noted that Duke University received a business exemption to water the fields.**
According to the Rubber Manufacturers Association, only 8 states have no restrictions on placing tires in landfills. Most of these restrictions have to do with preventing pest problems and tire fires, which release toxicants such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, nickel, polyaromatic hydrocarbons PAHs, and volatile organic compounds VOCs.**
The storm water runoff from synthetic turf is considered toxic leachate leaching chemicals and toxin’s such as PAH’s, COPCs, cadmium and lead. Where does it go? Straight into our rivers, creeks and oceans.
Soil Food Web Deprived of Oxygen
Synthetic turf lawns are one more non-porous surface that disallows rain to soak into the soil. This causes some serious drainage problems. Because of the toxic runoff and drainage issues, this is a product that is not healthy for the watershed. The soil food web, the vast ‘web’ of life in the soil beneath our feet is under extreme duress under synthetic turf, primarily because this soil is deprived of oxygen. No oxygen, no life and since it is not real soil the ‘infill’ is basically lifeless. Much of the current product being installed today in playing fields is made from virgin plastic, a petroleum product that adds to global warming in its manufacture.
Divorcement from nature
There is a spooky similarity between fake grass and those perpetually perfect Stepford wives. Most of us moviegoers where appropriately horrified to watch the men in the town of Stepford cuddling up to their synthetic spouses. Our response was calculated by Hollywood and the punch line, “I thought we where friends” in the movie was a kind of reverse Judas kiss in the plot line. Of course having a perfect wife had its upsides but it was at the expense of a real life. Therein lies the rub. Synthetic turf is yet another salvo in our separation from nature and natural systems. We may not see this downside right off the bat blinded as we are with all the supposed low maintenance upsides. Nature deficit is a disorder that has snuck up on us as our artificial systems have developed over the years. Living in cities we are surrounded by the built environment. Inside we are in the clutches of the right angles of four walls and a roof, we send our children outside to play on artificial turf that never changes and our divorcement from nature is complete.
Intangible benefits to a field of grass.
William Crain of the City College of New York Psychology Department presents the idea that replacing grass with synthetic turf can hinder children’s creative play and affect their development. “Today’s children largely grow up in synthetic, indoor environments,” he says. “Now, with the growing popularity of synthetic turf fields, their experience with nature will be less than ever.” **
Natural grass does offer tangible benefits. According to Turfgrass Producers International, these include increased
- pollution control
- absorption of carbon dioxide
- a cooling effect
- water filtration
- prevention of soil erosion. **
One of the great joys in my own life is to witness the cycles of nature, to revel in the changing of the seasons. While it is true that ‘natural’ turf is no shining example of a natural system, synthetic turf takes a giant step in the Stepford direction. Grass that is always the very same shade of green, never grows or changes and is off-gassing toxins instead of exhaling life giving oxygen in no way connects us with the patterns of nature.
Finally it must be asked what happens to synthetic turf fields when they are no longer usable? Industry estimates that synthetic turf fields have a lifespan of 10 to 12 years, whereupon the material must be disposed of appropriately. Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, says the infill could be cleaned and reused; put to another purpose, such as for rubber asphalt; incinerated; used in place of soil to separate landfill layers; or otherwise recycled. Typically, however, it is landfilled. **
Honest assessment of the issue
This account of the Pro’s and Con’s on the topic of synthetic turf vs. natural turf is by necessity a work in progress. My bias must be more than obvious from the title of this article yet I have made an honest attempt to find the primary Pro’s on the side of synthetic turf and then bring in the primary Con’s from my own and others experience. Every community must make their own determination hopefully after an honest assessment of the issue.
NYC’s Fake Grass Gamble: A 300M Mistake?
In 1998, New York City began installing synthetic turf fields in parks and playgrounds, saying the artificial material would be more durable than grass. But a City Limits investigation finds that many turf fields are falling apart, including this one at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.
Triple bottom line really?
A final thought in this realm is to follow the money. Are there entities making profits from the manufacture and installation of synthetic turf that are less than congruent with the common good? This is worth asking. It wouldn’t be the first time product sales where driven by concern for corporate financial bottom line above the social and ecological bottom lines.
There is an alternative
The debate leaves many on the fence. Orlando Gil an assistant research scientist at New York University and soccer coach, is weighing both alternatives: “We want children to play outside, exercise, and play sports, but with pesticides and fertilizers in grass and chemicals in artificial turf, I don’t know which to choose.” **
My response to Orlando is that there is an alternative: organically managed natural turf fields. In general as a ecological landscape contractor I would rather install a food forest than a lawn any day yet when it comes to the essential function of play fields I believe there’s nothing like the real thing.
Our Children’s Trust
Our children trust that we are providing them with a safe place to play. Our challenge is to live up to that trust amidst all of the marketing hoopla about synthetic turf. It is easy to be fooled by the alluring language of this supposed ‘green’ product.
- Ken Foster
* Excerpts from A REVIEW OF THE POTENTIAL HEALTH AND SAFETY RISKS FROM SYNTHETIC TURF FIELDS CONTAINING CRUMB RUBBER INFILL
New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene New York, NY
** Excerpts from Synthetic Turf: Health DebateTakes Root by Luz Claudio