If you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard or read about safety concerns arising from the use of artifical turf on athletic fields—specifically, the alleged respiratory and other health hazards of some of its chemical components.
In fact, complaints by parents over synthetic turf fields have recently resulted in the installation of synthetic fields made with organic filler (rather than ground-up recylced tires, aka crumb rubber) in the school districts of Pleasantville, Irvington and Bronxville.
But, according to Allen Dozor, MD, Section Chief of Pediatric Pulmonology, Allergy and Sleep Medicine at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network, most of the data thus far suggests that synthetic turf is safe. Unfortunately, Dr. Dozor says, “there really is insufficient scientific research to know for sure.” Recycled tires contain more than 60 different chemicals. “Many parents are understandably troubled when they see their children carrying in little rubber particles of tire crumbs on the bottom of their sneakers and their clothing,” he says.
Elevated levels of lead can be found in some types of synthetic turf fibers, potentially exposing young athletes to lead when the fibers degrade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry addressed this potential problem in their June 2008 Health Advisory, which found that the problem was more evident in a sampling of old, worn or faded turfs. That same year, the State of New York Department of Health reported that their review of “the available information on crumb rubber and crumb rubber infilled turf fields indicates that ingestion, dermal or inhalation exposures to chemicals in or released from crumb rubber do not pose a significant public health concern.”
Other potential medical issues include latex allergy and heat stress. Surface temperatures of playing fields filled with crumb rubber can get high enough—up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, Dr. Dozor notes—to cause discomfort and may contribute to heat stress in children. (Although he says that is more problematic in areas of the country that are typically hot all year long.)
Because of their rougher texture, some types of synthetic turfs may result in more skin abrasions, and opponents worry that this could result in infection. But according to the New York State Department of Health, the available data “do not suggest the widespread presence of infectious agents, such as MRSA, on synthetic turf fields,” and that neither natural nor synthetic playing fields are likely to increase the risk of transmitting infections.
Of course, the harder and longer a child plays, the greater their exposure to substances in artificial turf. For example, soccer, a highly aerobic sport, “involves a lot of huffing and puffing. The child is breathing in a lot more air than, say, someone playing outfield on a baseball field,” Dr. Dozor says. Also influencing an individual’s risk are age, gender, general health, genetic differences, exposure to other chemicals and lifestyle choices. “Children breathe in many more quarts of air per minute relative to their body weight, so they receive a greater ‘dose’ of any chemical in the air,” Dr. Dozor adds about the age factor. “They are down on the ground, rolling around, et cetera, adding to their exposure. The younger the child (or smaller the child), the greater the exposure.”
While Dr. Dozor says the data about today’s synthetic turf are reassuring (and many studies concur the health risks to be low), each family must use their judgment. “Let’s not forget the benefits of athletics and exercise. The possible risks should not stop families from encouraging their children to participate in sports. That’s probably worse than the risk of playing on the field itself.” •