Playing It Safe: Grass V. Turf

By Erin S. Ihde, MA, CCRP

Communities across the country are facing the decision of whether to install artificial turf in parks, playing fields and even private yards. Toxicity in the materials used is a major concern for many involved in the decision process. Even if one’s own yard is maintained organically, kids still may spend countless hours playing on town or school fields for organized sports, or at the local playground.

The topic of risk assessment in children’s health ties into everything from what playing field surface is best, to what paint to use for a home renovation. Because children are exposed to multiple toxins every day, no one can know for sure which exposure will trigger an adverse health outcome, but lists of potentially harmful chemicals do help. Some of those chemicals are in crumb rubber infill used on synthetic playing fields. Others are in pesticides used on grass fields and home lawns. These chemicals have known health effects from neurological impairments to endocrine (hormone) disruption to cancer.

The goal for many communities is to find a balance between the fiscal health of the community and the potential health effects to children. On first glance, some studies on conventional turf playing fields appear promising, with reduced injuries and minimal adverse health outcomes reported. However, the studies are short-term and don’t measure the long-term health effects of children playing on these fields day after day, week after week, year after year. No study has followed adults who played on these fields as kids, to determine any long-term outcomes. We need to know our kids will be healthy 30 years from now, not just 30 minutes from now. With this in mind, two more benign options are maintaining a grass field using organic methods or choosing a synthetic field with toxin-free grass blades and organic infill, though this technology is used more often in Europe and has more recently been introduced in the U.S.

Exposure assessment in kids is a unique proces. Children are not little adults. Pound for pound of body weight, they take in more air, water and food.  Rapid cell division, both in the prenatal/infant period and during adolescence, means greater opportunity for cells to mutate, and in some cases for cancer cells to proliferate, due to exposures to environmental triggers. Frequent hand-to-mouth activity also increases the number of exposure pathways. Additionally, children have a longer latency period for which diseases can manifest. Some diseases take decades, so exposures during childhood play a critical role.

Artificiall turf fields are rife with toxins, particularly chemicals in crumb (vulcanized) rubber infill, including SBR – styrene-butadiene-rubber (recycled tires), EPDM – ethylene propylene diene monomer (M-class) rubber (usually new), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hydrocarbons. There are multiple carcinogens according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization.

The VOCs alone are apparent when sitting in the stands near a turf field on a warm day. These chemicals can offgas into the air and waft from the field to the stands, and the teams are the first ones to breathe them in.

The World Health Organization states that environmental risk factors play a role in more than 80% of major diseases. With the stage “set” in the body, one or more environmental exposures can trigger disease onset. Will enough crumb rubber from a synthetic playing field enter a child’s airways or be absorbed dermally to cause short or long-term damage? Each child is different, but the toxin – the trigger – exists.

What’s more, toxins rarely, if ever, exist alone. Children are exposed to a “chemical soup” on a daily basis. For that reason, it’s critical to avoid exposures whenever possible, including pesticides currently sprayed on the fields, and the toxins in conventional turf fields. Synthetic playing surfaces produced with only organic fill such as coconut husks don’t present these same hazards.

Every day, kids are exposed to toxins in everything from food to personal care products, to where they play sports, and materials used to remodel homes, and all of these can affect children via multiple exposure pathways. Every exposure contributes to a child’s “total load.” Exposure thresholds set by government agencies don’t take multiple exposures, or “total load” into account.

What one child’s system can handle, another’s may not. Kids need either a natural grass field not coated in toxic pesticides, or a synthetic field with grass blades free of heavy metals, and all-organic infill. The Northern NJ Safe Yards Alliance and Beyond Pesticides have practical resources for maintaining grass organically. Kids deserve healthy play on a healthy surface.

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