Where Do We Stand on Synthetic Turf?

I admit it. I’m a fan of synthetic turf athletic fields. I’m specifically a fan of using crumb rubber as the preferred infill for these fields. I’m not ashamed or anti-green or any other adjective you want to attach to my preference. By the way, infill is the material placed on top of the field. It serves to hold up the blades of grass, weigh down the base layer and provide necessary cushioning to the field. Some people want grass only; others think crumb rubber; others think organic infill; while still others think a natural mineral is the only way to go.

There are a million, or so it seems, websites and advocacy groups espousing both sides of the issues except really there are many sides. It’s more like one of those weird Dungeons & Dragons game dice than just 2 sides of a coin.

Synthetic or artificial field playground surfaces have been around for over 40 years and there are currently more than 12,000 in the U.S.with over 1,000 more being installed each year. 1But there are communities banning their installation or new installations over what they consider to be health and cost concerns. 

Study after study over the last 15 years and especially the most recent ones all seem to be saying the same thing in different verbiage. Synthetic turf fields made out of crumb rubber do have ingredients which could be harmful to people. Oh my God that’s awful except all the reports go on to say the exposure to these ingredients are at such a level as to not present health implications in their use. The way I read these reports is the same way I think about most things. I wear plastic shirts; I sit on plastic seats; my water bottles are made of plastic; and my life comes into contact with plastic at an almost constant rate during the course of my day and life. We’d have to ban a lot of things in our children’s lives if we are constantly worried about de minimis affects.

My head has spun from all the material I’ve read but this quote from John Sorochan, a University of Tennessee turf grass professor and founder of the Center for Athletic Field Safety, really sums it up.

“Of course, we need to look at things. Dose equals poison. Paracelsus told us that in the 1400s. Water’s a poison if you consume too much water.

If you look at the real-world perspective, we have a quarter of a billion cars on the road every day, which means there are a billion car tires. You have to replace your car tires because the rubber wears, and it wears down into a fine particulate. If you’re looking at what you put in a synthetic field, you’re looking at a really course particle size, whereas car tires break down into a fine dust. Then every time it rains, that tire debris washes into our sewer systems and goes directly into our rivers and streams. If there’s a contamination concern, it would be way greater in urban areas from car tires being driven up and down the streets than it would from crumb rubber on athletic fields.”

Over the years, I’ve had the same reaction to some other controversial life issues. I remember during the AIDS hysteria and people screaming about the world’s population being erased because the virus might be transmitted by bug bites. A prominent physician, whose name escapes me, said something to the effect that if bugs transmitted the virus then all of New Orleans would be dead. One of the more current hysteria issues is over vaccinations. I’m a fan of those too.

I believe hundreds of studies have now been completed and many more are in the pipeline. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) co-sponsored a study with the Consumer Product Safety Commission and their results and recommendations are now on-line.This is from the CPSC web site.

Advice for Communities Concerned about Playgrounds with Recycled Tire Surfaces

We recognize that communities, parents and state and local officials are concerned about recycled tire materials used in playground surfacing. The study’s findings will provide a better understanding of potential exposures children may experience by using playgrounds with recycled tire surfacing. While this short-term study won’t provide all the answers, the information will help answer some of the key questions that have been raised.

Communities, parents, state and local officials are encouraged to explore Federal Agency websites (CPSC – https://www.cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Education-Centers/Crumb-Rubber-Safety-Information-Center and EPA – www.epa.gov/tirecrumbs) to review the research results available to date on the use of recycled rubber tires for playgrounds and artificial turf fields. In addition, concerned individuals can check their state’s public health agency websites to determine if there are state-specific recommendations.

While no specific chemical hazards from recycled tires in playground surfacing are known by the CPSC at this time, the following precautions to limit exposure are recommended:

  1. Avoid mouth contact with playground surfacing materials, including mouthing, chewing, or swallowing playground rubber. This may pose a choking hazard, regardless of chemical exposure.
  2. Avoid eating food or drinking beverages while directly on playground surfaces, and wash hands before handling food.
  3. Limit the time at a playground on extremely hot days.
  4. Clean hands and other areas of exposed skin after visiting the playground, and consider changing clothes if evidence of tire materials (e.g., black marks or dust) is visible on fabrics.
  5. Clean any toys that were used on a playground after the visit.

Here are my translations: 

  1. Don’t eat the field. The same goes for dirt and sand. 
  2. Don’t eat food off the field or drink puddles off the field and wash your hands before you eat. 
  3. When it’s hot, be careful and drink lots of fluids and take cooling breaks. 
  4. Take a shower and clean your clothes after you exercise. 
  5. Clean the dirt off your kid’s toys. 

If you’d like to take the time, the EPA has an aggregate list of studies already performed on the subject.The list is updated through 2016 and more studies have been completed since then, including the CSPC’s referenced above. 

Crumb rubber fields have been studied – a lot. The conclusions remain consistent in that rubber is made with volatile compounds but exposure to these compounds are not harmful unless under extreme circumstances like exposure to acid rain. 

Do you know what hasn’t been studied to death for harmful affects: natural infills and mineral infills. I’m not saying they are bad or harmful or better for you or worse but I’d love to put these same testing protocols to these ingredients and find out how they stand up. In only a few of the existing studies have I seen comparisons on a side-by-side basis with dirt fields. The results show the exposure risks are equal and in many cases the risks are lower on crumb rubber due to things like maintenance and upkeep of the fields. 

I’d love to read your comments but they better be study based if you are being critical. 

  1. https://www.syntheticturfcouncil.org
  2. https://www.cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Education-Centers/Crumb-Rubber-Safety-Information-Center
  3. https://www.epa.gov/chemical-research/tire-crumb-and-synthetic-turf-field-literature-and-report-list-nov-2015