Children need exercise. Especially in this day and age when one-third of American kids are overweight or obese. Extracurricular athletic practices, competitions and even pick-up games provide kids with fresh air and a chance to burn off the calories from today’s giant portion sizes of snacks and beverages. All these healthy recreational activities require green space. Many park districts and schools have opted to pull up the sod from their playing fields and install artificial turf. It sounds like a great alternative to muddy, torn up soccer pitches and field hockey fields. But is artificial turf safe?
Artificial turf is made to look like grass. Green ‘blades’ of dyed polyethylene or nylon are glued to fabric backing. In order to give the surface some cushion (unlike the original fields that were as hard as concrete), “infill” is laid down to function as the dirt. This infill is usually made of tire crumb – ground up recycled car and truck tires. The result is a pristine looking surface that requires little maintenance. But in recent years there has been some well-founded concern regarding the possible health effects to athletes who play on these fields day-in and day-out.
There are three main health concerns regarding artificial turf fields. First, the ‘blades’ of grass in older fields contain dangerous levels of lead. With wear and tear children are at risk of ingesting lead-laden dust. Lead is a potent toxin and manifests as behavioral disorders and lower IQ. Second, the tire crumb infill contains polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are known to cause cancer. It is common for children to become covered with the tire crumb during play. Ingestion or inhalation of the tire crumb might increase the risk of certain cancers. Finally, artificial playing fields are hot. Temperatures on field surfaces during hot, sunny weather have been recorded as high as 160 degrees F. This confers a risk for heat related illnesses like heat exhaustion and dehydration.
There is no current consensus on the risk to children from playing on artificial turf fields. The US Environmental Protection Agency states, “there is no definitive study that fully addresses all of the questions regarding safety considerations associated with the use of synthetic turf and/or crumb rubber fields.” New York City’s parks department no longer uses tire crumb on its artificial turf fields and several other municipalities are considering moratoriums on the installation of new fields until definitive safety studies are completed.
What can you do?
Ask your parks department or school if the playing field has been tested for lead. If tests are positive, request that the field be replaced. Or request that your child’s team not use that field. Regarding testing, the Centers for Disease Control released a Health Alert related to artificial turf playing fields in 2008 that recommends testing of turf if nylon fibers are abraded, faded or broken, as well as replacing fields that are worn and dusty, as a precautionary measure.
Remove the tire crumb from your child’s skin as soon possible after play. That means wiping off or showering immediately after the game. To prevent ingestion of field dust wash hands before eating the post-game snack and avoid keeping open beverages on the field.
Keep cool on hot days! Drink plenty of water, rest in the shade, remove a child from play if he or she develops muscle cramps. Inquire whether maintenance personnel can wet the fields before play to reduce the surface temperature.