The term ‘turf’ is misleading
The material is basically a scrap chemical product
MOUNTAINS OF OLD truck tires dotting the US countryside used to be a common sight, but no longer. Companies have found a lucrative new use for old tires: grinding them up and re-marketing them as “artificial turf” for children’s athletic fields.
The arguments in favor of plastic turf initially appear compelling. It’s a way to reuse plentiful tire waste. It offers an apparently durable sports surface that doesn’t require irrigation or sunlight. It can be used in wet conditions. These features have convinced communities across Massachusetts, including Newton, Brookline, Dorchester, and Charlestown to install these plastic fields.
Unfortunately, artificial turf made from truck tires is far from a family-friendly solution. Quite the opposite: student athletes playing on artificial turf are not only exposed to known carcinogens and neurotoxins, but also are at increased risk of heat illness and infectious complications of turf burns.
The term “turf” is misleading. This material has no relationship to actual turf or grass. It is basically a scrap chemical product. Its two main components are small strips of green plastic and very small black rubber pellets derived from old truck tires. Most of these tires are made from styrene-butadiene rubber, a petrochemical product.
Styrene is toxic to the nervous system and butadiene is a carcinogen known to cause leukemia, including childhood leukemia. Lead is toxic to children’s brains and nervous systems and leads to IQ loss in children – and is present in artificial turf at levels known to be harmful to children. Benzene is known to cause leukemia (including childhood leukemia), lymphoma and other blood disorders.
PAH is a known cause of skin cancer. PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” which are used in the artificial turf manufacturing process and are present in the finished product, are linked to a range of serious health consequences including reproductive disorders, thyroid dysfunction and cancers.
There is no “safe” level of exposure to benzene, PFAS or lead: all have negative health consequences at every level and children playing on artificial turf are exposed to all of them.
Following heavy rains, chemicals in artificial turf can leach into water and be absorbed through the players’ skin or directly ingested. They can also run off into lakes, rivers and groundwater, contaminate local water systems and affect nearby residents.
High ambient temperatures cause the toxic chemicals in the tire pellets to vaporize into the air that children are breathing, thus amplifying the risks. Such high temperatures are increasingly common: last month was the hottest July ever recorded in Massachusetts.
According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, surface temperatures on an artificial turf field averaged 35° to 60° Fahrenheit higher than on natural grass; artificial turf fibers have been known to reach 156° F under direct sunlight, while the crumb rubber infill can reach over 100° Fahrenheit.
Such high temperatures pose a serious health hazard, especially to children running and playing at high intensity. Children are less able to adapt to heat than adults and are therefore more likely to experience heat illness, including dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, when exposed to extreme heat. The recent spike in student athlete deaths due to heat stroke underscores this risk.
US national soccer teams have refused to use synthetic turf fields. Many wealthy municipalities in Massachusetts have banned these artificial fields for the same reasons. Boston’s Mayor Wu will not allow further installation of turf fields in Boston public parks, but did allow replacement of artificial fields with new ones-–thus perpetuating the health hazards.
In Charlestown, a community with a high concentration of low-income residents, 9.61 acres of replacement artificial turf is being installed a block from the fourth-largest low-income housing development in the country.
Most artificial turf is manufactured in low-income communities and communities of color in South Texas and in Louisiana’s infamous Cancer Alley along the Mississippi River. Turf manufacture exposes these communities to disproportionately high levels of air and water pollution. It is a major source of environmental injustice.
Existing artificial turf should not be replaced with new plastic turf and new turf fields should not be built. Grass fields have greater longevity, do not harm health, do not magnify risks of heat induced illness, and do not leach out “forever chemicals” like PFAS and lead.
Massachusetts is home to some of the greatest inequalities in pollution in the nation. Removing plastic fields from our play spaces is one small–but significant–step we can take to level the pollution inequality playing field. All of our children deserve to play in fields free from harmful chemicals.For health, climate and health equity reasons, it is time for Massachusetts to invest in grass fields–not plastic ones.
Brita Lundberg is chair of the board at Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility. Sydney Engel is a family nurse practitioner at the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center in central Massachusetts. Philip J. Landrigan is a pediatrician and public health physician; he directs the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College.