After a damp, cold winter that morphed into a damp, cold spring, Portland was recently forced to close all of its grass play fields for several weekends in order to prevent irreparable damage (see right photo). On a typical weekend, the fields are replete with soccer players, kickball tournaments, and pick-up Frisbee games.
Should Portland follow the lead of New York City, the largest municipal buyer of artificial turf in the country, and consider replacing some of its waterlogged grass fields with synthetic surfaces? Health impacts are one important consideration for any city making such decisions, which brings us to our first “Ask the Expert” post:
Since artificial turf is made from synthetic materials and ground-up tires, is it safe for people to play on?
By general consensus, the answer is yes for both adults and children.
A joint study by ALIAPUR, the French government body associated with used tires, and ADEME, the French Agency for Environment and Energy Management, concluded that there is no threat to human health, or the environment.
Another evaluation, done by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, found that while low levels of lead were associated with artificial turf fields, “young children are not at risk from [the] exposure.” Furthermore, a test result from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services confirmed that lead chromate levels are well below the level that can cause harm to children and athletes using the surface. In fact, the results showed a 50 lb child would have to consume 100 lbs of synthetic turf to be at risk of absorbing enough lead to equal the minimum threshold of elevated blood lead.
While synthetic turf may be chemically safe, risks do still exist. One is from skin burns since synthetic turf does not reflect heat as well as natural grass. A study by Brad Fresenburg at the Department of Horticulture, University of Missouri found that on a 98-degree day, when natural grass had a temperature of 105 degrees, synthetic grass rose to 173 degrees. Also, while natural grass is able to wash out and clean itself from bacteria, saliva and even blood, synthetic turf is not. Therefore a threat of bacterial infections can be higher on synthetic turf, and certain precautions should be taken, such as making sure to treat any “turf burns” acquired on the surface. Fresenburg also points out that due to the increase in velocity and traction associated with artificial turf, injuries such as strains and spasms may be more common. Conversely, while field grass may be natural, it too has drawbacks. Natural grass surface can be uneven, with potholes and slippery, even harder surfaces, especially in the winter. The study even goes on the state that “more concussions per games played occurred on natural grass fields.”