Is Artificial Turf a Health Risk? Studies Say No

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Every day, untold children spend time running around on playgrounds and soccer fields, a cushioned substance of crumb rubber underfoot. It’s been one of recycling’s best success stories — giving new life to the tires from all those cars we drive.

The benefits are numerous. Grass fields can be tough to maintain, and during 2010, the use of synthetic turf saved between 3 billion and 6 billion gallons of water. Instead of going to landfills, the tires have been diverted into something useful that enhances communities. Because these fields are both a cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution, more than 11,000 synthetic turf sports fields are currently in use throughout the United States.

But not everyone is so sure they’re a good thing. Residents of San Francisco debated their use for years. In the Women’s World Cup that just wrapped up, players and fans criticized FIFA for hosting the event on artificial turf. (It’s the first time the tournament wasn’t played on real grass.) Players say turf is tougher on the body, requires more recovery time, makes skin abrasions worse, and changes the way the ball bounces.

More worrisome, though, are claims about the health risks of turf. Last year, NBC News reported that the University of Washington’s associate head coach for the women’s soccer team has hypothesized that artificial turf is contributing to cancer in children, particularly those who play goalie. With all the time they spend hitting the turf in an effort to deflect balls from the goal, are these young players putting themselves at risk for serious issues such as leukemia?

Some people believe there's a link between artificial turf and cancer, but no study has found a link between the two. Photo: Flickr.com/

Some people believe artificial turf contributes to cancer, but no study has found a link between the two. Photo: Flickr.com/Lucho De Leon

The hypothesis has caught the attention of media and parents, but it’s not backed in science. Studies over the years have shown that playing on synthetic turf is no more dangerous than being out in the world at large. In one study, the Connecticut Department of Public Health looked at five fields during the summertime — four outdoor and one indoor — and concluded that synthetic turf fields are not associated with elevated adverse health risks. “The current results are generally consistent with the findings from studies conducted by New York City, New York State, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Norway, which tested different kinds of fields and under a variety of weather conditions,” wrote the study’s authors in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.

The authors did note, however, that the risk levels were somewhat higher indoors. While these risks levels were still below the threshold of a health concern, they recommend good ventilation for any indoor venues.

In response to the news reports about the UW soccer coach, the Connecticut Department of Public Health issued a letter to its local health departments and districts. “There are many reasons why someone collecting a list of cancer cases may appear to find a cluster, including the fact that when you have a single-minded focus on finding cases, you do not capture all the non-cases that would tend to disprove the cluster,” the letter says. “Documentation of an increased rate in soccer players would require an epidemiological study in which the total number who play on turf fields in a given region was also known so that a cancer rate could be established and compared to those that do not play on artificial turf fields.”

A soccer coach at the University of Washington has hypothesized that goalies are at risk for health complications from artificial turf. There's no scientific evidence to support this. Photo: Flickr.com/MSC Academy U12 Green

A soccer coach at the University of Washington has hypothesized that goalies are at risk for health complications from artificial turf. There’s no scientific evidence to support this. Photo: Flickr.com/MSC Academy U12 Green

Further study is something people on all sides of the debate support, including the Synthetic Turf Council, a nonprofit association of manufacturers, testing labs, maintenance equipment companies, athletic directors, and more. Looking at types of infill besides chrome rubber — such as cork, coconut fibers and rice husks — could provide insight into products that might be deemed even more suitable for the next wave of synthetic turf fields.

In the meantime, parents can rest assured that current research — including a study published last year in Environmental Science & Technology and information compiled by the New York State Department of Health — points to crumb rubber in playgrounds and fields being perfectly safe for children and adults alike.

Editor’s Note: Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries is one of these partners.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.com/Chris Price

Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of national and regional publications, covering everything from sustainability and health to travel and retail.

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