Be Cautious When Playing on Artificial Fields

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By Jose Aguayo.

Artificial turf fields have become the norm when it comes to athletic fields. They are everywhere here in northern Virginia and a reported 11,000 fields are in use in the entire country. I, myself, was just playing in one this past weekend (despite the freezing cold). However, there are lingering questions about the safety of these fields given that several studies have found elevated levels of polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and toxic metals like lead present in them.

As someone who enjoys playing soccer, these turf fields are extremely convenient because they are available year-round, they provide a smooth and reliable surface to play on, and they don’t require much maintenance. Yet I am conflicted about playing in them, not just because of the myriad of toxic substances found in them, but because of the conflicting information we get from supposedly trusted sources.

As far back as 2007, concerns were raised from contaminants in artificial turf – specifically lead in an artificial turf field in New Jersey. Then, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) noted that the field posed a public health hazard and recommended that the field be closed. Not long after, however, the Consumer Protection and Safety Commission (CPSC) released an analysis of synthetic turf and concluded these fields are “OK to Install, OK to Play On” and that they are safe for young children.

Since then, there have been other studies that have found several different toxic substances in these turf fields. The problem is that there seem to be no standardized way of determining if the toxic chemicals in these fields are readily available to enter your system or if they are contained within the turf pellets and synthetic fibers. Research seems to point to wear and tear as the cause for some of these chemicals as it can likely migrate from the field to the users more easily, but it is not quite conclusive. The other problem is that there little to no research into the health effects of sustained exposure to artificial turf in humans.

In an attempt to clear the uncertainty around the health risks of artificial turf, a federal multiagency research plan was started in 2016. This research consists of two parts. Part 1 characterized the chemicals present in tire crumb rubber and was released in 2019. Unsurprisingly, it found several toxic chemicals present but suggested these chemicals have little to no routes of exposure to humans. Part 2 is still to be released and will fully explore possible human exposures to the chemicals found in the tire crumb rubber material. It will also include the results of a biomonitoring study being conducted by CDC/ATSDR to investigate potential exposure to constituents in tire crumb rubber.

After all this, at least until part 2 of the multiagency study is released, we are left with more questions than answers. Until then, I’d advise caution. It’s probably a good idea to choose natural grass fields whenever possible, like in the warmer months, and playing in artificial turf ones when there is no other alternative. A cautious approach is always best when dealing with toxics.

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