Since the 1960’s, artificial turf has crept its way into our residential lawns, parks and playing fields, both professional and recreational, taking over our natural landscapes. It’s gain in popularity can be attributed to lucrative marketing campaigns, and false notions that it’s better for the environment and safer to play on. Many studies, recent and ongoing, have found that artificial turf can pose many studied and proven health, safety, and environmental concerns.
Here we review many of the concerns that have come to light with regards to artificial turf, and why natural grass lawns are still the ideal choice for residential lawns, parks and playing fields.
1. Injury Rates
Recent research studies published in the 2018 and 2019 American Journal of Sports Medicine clearly shows more injuries on synthetic turf among NFL athletes (over 5 playing seasons) and NCAA athletes (over the course of 10 playing seasons). Synthetic turf surfaces have in fact been found to lead to higher lower extremity injuries. Data provided by the NFL Players Association from an NIH study compared fake turf and natural grass injuries and found a 16% higher injury rate on turf. Another study comparing artificial turf versus natural grass conducted by physician-researchers from University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University and UH Sports Medicine Institute “analyzed data collected by 26 high school athletic trainers during the 2017-2018 athletic seasons” and “found athletes were 58 percent more likely to sustain an injury during athletic activity on artificial turf.”
2. Concussion Concerns
Concussions more easily occur on synthetic turf than natural grass. An athlete can fall from twice as high on natural grass as they can on synthetic turf and not get a concussion. Here is a quick, interesting video from the University of Texas Turfgrass Program that further discusses this point.
3. Temperature Concerns
Wet Bulb Globe Temperature: According to ScienceDirect, ‘wet bulb temperature is the lowest temperature to which air can be cooled by the evaporation of water into the air at a constant pressure.” In simple terms, this measurement looks at dry-heat and humidity, and its effect on the body’s ability to cool down. Synthetic turf surfaces have been found to retain heat in warmer climates, which can often lead to dangerous playing conditions, up to 40%-70% hotter than natural grass fields. The National Recreation and Park Association reports that “since grass fields release water vapor (or transpire) and the evaporation of that water vapor leads to cooling, grass fields rarely get above 100° F. Turf fields, in comparison, regularly rise well above 100° F.” These extreme heat conditions can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke in children and athletes.
Heat Island Effect: Another cause for concern regarding temperature, is the Heat Island Effect. According to the EPA, “heat islands are urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas.” Because artificial turf has been found to reach very high surface level temps and retain that heat for longer, these surfaces are contributing to this effect, which only serve to contribute to some of the dangerous conditions outlined above, and others, like skin burns. The National Recreation and Park Association shared the findings of a study by Brigham Young University that found that the surface temperature of the synthetic turf was 37° F higher than asphalt and 86.5° F hotter than natural turf.”
4. Microplastics Pollution
Artificial turf is made up of synthetic fibers made of nylon, and polypropylene or polyethylene made to look like natural grass. These fibers are attached to the blades and backing. Turf fields are then infilled with crumb rubber from used tires and other granular materials. This combination of crumb rubber and plastic fibers often come out of these surfaces when used. They get carried home in cleats, clothes, and end up in washing machines and ultimately city or public water supplies. They also get tracked or blown off the field and end up in the environment, streams, and other resources used for public consumption. After the life of the field, they often end up in dumps, and ultimately in landfills. So, while it may seem that artificial turf is helping the environment by recycling and reusing materials, it is simply delaying these materials from reaching the landfill as opposed to preventing it.
A recent look at a Los Angeles proposed plan to cover 16 acres of land along the LA river with artificial turf by public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has found unhealthy levels of toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). In their own studies, the EPA has found that there is virtually no safe level of PFAS that should be used. For more, read Los Angeles’ Artificial Turf Plan Misguided.
5. Ecosystem Services
Ecosystem Services looks at the positive benefits that wildlife and the environment provide to people. Recent research has shown the various Ecosystem Services provided by natural grass parks, fields, lawns, etc. are positive contributors to many ecosystem services. They allow infiltration of rainwater, they capture, filter, and clean storm flow or runoff water from impervious surfaces, they capture carbon, cool our environment, reduce cooling costs from air conditioners, reduce carbon emissions from power plants, restore soils to native conditions, provide a habitat for beneficial arthropods/insects, etc. In comparison, artificial turf, fields do none of this and in fact often have the opposite effect as outlined by some of the above noted concerns.
6. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA)
The Synthetic Turf Advisory Council is investigating the crumb rubber pellet material used for infilling turf fields for their cancer-risks. Studies, like this extensive one being conducted by OEHHHA, are imperative when the risks of these synthetic surfaces far outweigh the benefits. When considering that children and athletes may ultimately spend hours playing on, rolling around on, diving, and falling on these surfaces, it’s certainly worth waiting on the results of these studies before spending large amounts of money installing a product that could potentially need to be torn out because of its inherent cancer risks.
7. Construction and Maintenance Costs
The unfortunate truth is that artificial turf is not maintenance free. Often these fields and lawns are touted as being the better option in this regard when compared to natural grass fields and lawns. Thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars can be spent on installation and maintenance of these surfaces over the course of their lifespan, which can vary depending on the volume of use, but average 8-10 years.
Artificial turf fields are not a ‘set-it and forget-it’ option; there are many maintenance needs that are often overlooked. For instance:
- Irrigation is often still needed to cool playing surfaces on hot days.
- Accumulated debris like trash and leaves still require blowing by field maintenance crews.
- Bodily fluids from athletes and waste from animals requires specialized cleaning to ensure surfaces are sanitized properly.
- High levels of use or prolonged use can lead to replacement needs. Artificial turf cannot self-repair like natural grass.
8. Warranty Issues and Removal Costs
Artificial turf surfaces are laid on top of a base layer of gravel and sand and secured with long nails. As mentioned above, they are also infilled with plastic materials. Proper installation by a qualified landscape company is key to the longevity of these surfaces. Wear and tear, failure to maintain, improper footwear, natural occurrences like flooding, etc. can all lead to costly repair and replacement costs over time. Even more concerning, these issues can lead to warranties being voided, leaving homeowners and businesses to take on the costly duty of removing an old field and finding a dump or business that will accept these synthetic materials, and this can be very costly.
Artificial turf may be pretty to look at, and under certain circumstances, like small slope areas, or along walkways where it doesn’t make sense to install an irrigation system, fake grass may be an ideal choice. However, given the notable concerns that have arisen regarding these artificial products, it’s safe to say that the move back to natural grass lawns and playing surfaces is imperative. Real grass not only offers many positive benefits that support our health, and safety, but their positive environmental impact can’t be matched by plastic imposters.
To read more about why homeowners prefer natural grass, check out our top five natural grass benefits.