And why natural grass is a safer, eco-friendly, and healthier alternative
Have you ever been at your kid's soccer game and wondered if artificial turf is safe for them to play, snack, and lie on? What about those small black bits of infill that end up in every nook and cranny of your home or car?
Turns out that scientists are studying these same questions and artificial turf poses a number of health and environmental concerns. These include toxic chemicals in the artificial turf infill, artificial grass blades, and shock pad, as well as health concerns due to excessive heat. Environmental impacts of artificial turf include chemical runoff, microplastic pollution, and habitat loss. Is there a good alternative to artificial turf? Yes - just regular natural grass! Studies have shown that natural grass maintained with organic or sustainable practices provides a safer, practical, and affordable alternative for playing fields.
What’s in artificial turf infill, and should I be concerned?
Artificial turf has several components, including the green synthetic grass carpet, usually made with plastic and/ or nylon, and infill that provides cushioning and keeps grass carpet blades standing upright. All of these materials can contain chemicals of concern.
Many artificial turf fields contain infill made from waste tires; this infill is referred to as crumb rubber, or tire crumb. Tire crumb contains a large number of chemicals, many of which are known to be hazardous to human health and the environment. Many of these chemicals are used intentionally in the manufacturing process, while others adhere to tires when they are out on the road. These include polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); volatile organic compounds (VOCs); metals, such as lead and zinc; and other chemicals, including vulcanization compounds, stabilizers and fillers used in tire manufacturing. A literature review by the U.S. EPA identified just over 350 chemicals or chemical categories that appeared in the existing literature on tire crumb. Some of the chemicals found in tire crumb are endocrine disruptors (e.g., phthalates); some are known or suspected carcinogens (e.g., arsenic, cadmium, benzene, styrene); and some are associated with other human health effects.
Is PFAS in artificial turf?
Recent research has also identified per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in some artificial turf carpet materials. PFAS are a group of chemicals often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they are highly persistent in the environment; some can last for hundreds of years. Health effects documented for some PFAS include effects on the endocrine system, including liver and thyroid, as well as metabolic effects, developmental effects, neurotoxicity, and immunotoxicity. PFAS have been found in drinking water in communities across the country. For more information, see TURI’s fact sheet on PFAS in artificial turf.
Does artificial turf get too hot?
Artificial turf can become much hotter than natural grass on a warm, sunny day. Experts note that high temperatures can lead to potentially life-threatening heat-related illnesses. Elevated surface temperatures can damage equipment and burn skin, and can increase the risk of heat-related illness, which can be a life-threatening emergency.
Heat guidance is often based on air temperature and other factors, not including the temperature of the play surface, so the risk to athletes may be underestimated in many cases. Some communities, such as Burlington MA, choose to measure artificial turf surface temperatures to help determine conditions under which athletes may use artificial turf fields and the conditions under which their activities must be moved to grass fields. Learn more about this topic in TURI’s overview fact sheet, “Athletic Playing Fields and Artificial Turf: Considerations for Municipalities and Institutions.”
What about green space, habitat, and other environmental impacts from artificial turf?
Greenspaces offer cooler refuges in the built environment, especially as climates warm. Natural grass also offers habitat to plants, insects, soil microorganisms and other wildlife. Artificial turf, in contrast, eliminates these areas of habitat. Artificial turf also contributes to microplastic pollution as particles of plastic grass blades and infill migrate into the surrounding environment.
There are also growing concerns about how waste tires affect wildlife. A chemical used in tires, 6PPD-quinone, has been found to be responsible for mortality of coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Studies of 6PPD-quinone have not focused specifically on runoff from artificial turf fields made with tire crumb, but this is an important area for additional research, especially when artificial turf is sited close to water resources.
Disposal of artificial turf is also a significant challenge. Fields typically need to be replaced after 8 to 10 years, and recycling options are very limited. Waste artificial turf often ends up in landfills or informal stockpiles, creating new environmental challenges. A number of communities have struggled to find ways to dispose of used artificial turf. In 2020, reuse of turf in a construction project led to the release of a large amount of tire crumb into the Puyallup River in Washington State.
Natural grass is a safer alternative to artificial turf
Natural grass can be a safer option for recreational spaces by eliminating many of the concerns noted above. Use of organic and sustainable management practices on playing fields also eliminates the need for toxic insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. The focus of organic and sustainable land care is to build a healthy soil ecosystem and a healthy root system, creating a resilient playing surface.
Communities often have questions about whether natural grass can provide a sufficient number of playable hours to meet their athletic and recreational needs. To help answer these questions, TURI has developed detailed case studies of several communities that are managing their fields using organic and sustainable techniques. In Massachusetts, the City of Springfield, the Town of Marblehead, and communities in Martha’s Vineyard all use organic practices to maintain numerous athletic fields. Field users and those in charge of maintenance are very satisfied with the quality of these grass areas and are able to meet all of their sporting and recreational needs. Learn more about these communities and see a short video on our website.
Elements of sustainable natural grass management programs include frequent aeration and mowing, and careful application of appropriate fertilizers based on site-specific needs. Artificial turf also requires maintenance, often with specialized equipment, such as grooming, disinfecting, and replacing infill.
For communities where artificial turf is already in place, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai has recommendations for reducing your child’s exposure. These include avoiding play on hot days; changing clothes and showering immediately after play; and avoiding passive recreational activities such as picnicking on the field.