Health, environmental, and safety consequences of turf replacements
Synthetic turf fields are commonplace at highschools, colleges, and stadiums across the country. First used in the Houston Astrodome in 1966, synthetic turf became increasingly popular because of its low maintenance qualities and cost effectiveness. As of 2020, synthetic turf is a 2.7 billion dollar industry in North America alone, according to the Synthetic Turf Council. But synthetic turf raises concerns when it comes to people’s health and negative environmental impacts.
The use of synthetic turf at USF is expanding. Benedetti Diamond (excluding the pitching mound) and Negoesco Field are both made of turf. Welch Field by St. Ignatius Church, which has been off-limits for months due to construction, is currently being replaced with synthetic turf, according to Vice President of Business and Finance Charlie Cross. This means that small, black rubber pellets will likely be a frequent sight on campus. Due to the potential environmental damage and health risks it is imperative that synthetic turf continues to be researched and that the potential impacts it may have at USF are closely monitored.
Even though synthetic turf can save thousands of gallons of water and removes the need for fertilizer, it is still an overall net negative on the environment. The rubber infill pellets of the turf are made from shredded tires known as “tire rubber crumb.” These pellets contain a variety of dangerous chemicals like lead and mercury which can volatilize into the air and in rain water runoff according to research published by the American Chemical Society. Synthetic turf’s pollution in waterways and air is especially concerning because of the several carcinogens found in it. Although there is no concrete evidence that synthetic turf causes cancer, research from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute explains that there is also no evidence that shows that the carcinogenic turf is safe.
In addition, of the 120,000 pounds of rubber infill that make up a field, 4,800 pounds of loose rubber infill annually gets tracked into people’s homes and nearby underbrush, and flushed into bodies of water. Synthetic turf is most often thrown into landfills after its eight year lifespan and has very few recyclable applications, according to an article published by The Atlantic.
Synthetic turf becomes increasingly warm on hot summer days, often to dangerous levels; it can reach temperatures up to 180 degrees fahrenheit, melting cleats and endangering athletes. Besides potentially suffering burns and heatstroke, synthetic turf also increases risk of injury for athletes. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) has made efforts to ban the use of synthetic turf on NFL fields on numerous occasions now. They argue that “artificial turf is significantly harder on the body than grass.” Research published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that since synthetic turf is harder, it significantly increases football player’s risk of head injury. The NFLPA also argues that synthetic turf causes significantly more non-contact injuries. They found that activity on synthetic turf has a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower body injury. Because of this data, players and coaches around the NFL have been demanding that the NFL enforces a ban on synthetic turf. However, fourteen of the 30 teams in the league currently use synthetic turf and as of now have no plans of changing to grass.
While there isn’t a clear alternative to artificial turf for sports besides returning to regular, ornamental grass, there are lots of options we could be using for green spaces at USF. Instead of covering Welch Field in plastic, USF could use ground cover plants like creeping thyme or clover. Both use less water than regular grass, but still provide a lush, green area to relax and play in. “Smart lawns,” that use alternatives to ornamental grass, can be designed to be more pollinator friendly, use little-to-no fertilizer, and overall be a prettier sight than bright green, plastic turf.
Synthetic turf might have once been the lawn of the future, but it should belong in the past.