Have you noticed that more and more synthetic fields are cropping up in your local community? You know the ones… lucid green, perfectly trimmed, not a grass blade out of place. But did you know that these synthetic fields are made of plastic and rubber? Yep, no soil or grass just recycled tire parts (broken down into ‘rubber crumbs’ to resemble soil) and a whole bunch of chemicals. Yikes.
These rubber playing fields were first introduced by Monsanto in the 1960s – fancy seeing Monsanto here, hey? For those who don’t know them, Monsanto is the corporation responsible for the supplying of herbicide named ‘Agent Orange’ by the US government in the Vietnam war and for creating Roundup (active ingredient glyphosate declared by the world health organisation as a probable carcinogen in 2015).
Now, the reason these new rubber and plastic fields are such a concern is that there are a host of potential health risks associated with them. We wanted to put together a bit of an overview, so, when it comes to fake grass, rubber crumbs and rubber play surfaces we know this:
The rubber tire crumbs are proven to be carcinogenic and neurotoxic.
They commonly contain the chemicals benzene, carbon black, lead, mercury, arsenic, heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Some of these chemicals are known carcinogens and can also be neurotoxic and endocrine disrupting , according to some of the research. To add to this, cancer cases have been reported within clusters of young soccer players who regularly played on these artificial fields. These players are most commonly diagnosed with lymphoma – and in case studies, up to 60% are goalies of soccer teams. For some context – the goalies tend to be the ones that spend the most time plummeting into the fake grass and rubber crumbs, where they can often inhale vapours on a hot day or expose their skin and scrapes to the rubber crumbs. You can read an article in the Washington Post on this unfortunate cancer clusters here.
When it comes to these fake grass fields, things are getting so serious that California state Senator Jerry Hill introduced legislation to put a moratorium on artificial turf, citing concerns that “an increasing number of young athletes have developed leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and testicular, prostate and other forms of cancer.” Further to this, the forward-thinking local council of New York is now looking at alternatives to crumb rubber fields as they’re aware of the risks associated with prolonged exposure. They have also committed to stopping the installation of crumb rubber fields in parks and the Los Angeles Unified School District has done the same. If they can do it, so can we.
This stuff gets into the air we breathe.
Fake grass can get up to two times hotter than real grass, meaning the plastics are overheating. Though studies are limited on the effects of these chemicals reaching two times that of grass, it’s certainly not painting a reassuring picture.
Studies have also been done on microscopic carbon black particles broken down from rubber crumbs that can become airborne and are easily inhaled by players. Additionally, the blades of plastic grass can disintegrate due to exposure to harsh sunlight and weather, which causes them to turn into a respirable dust / microplastic particles. The thought of it all just pains me. It’s like we’ve gone and decided to completely ignore the natural order of things, don’t you think?! I mean at what point was this logical? I keep picturing birds descending on the hunt for worms, only to pick and bits of plastic instead and slowly dying or feeding it to their young. It’s truly heartbreaking.
Pesticides and weed killers are often still present.
To add insult to injury, chemical treatment is STILL required on these fields and play spaces. Despite the turf being made of ‘fake grass’, weed killers are still required because crabgrass (USA) and other weeds can start growing from the turf (how these weeds survive is beyond me!). Anyhoo, these weed killers are equally concerning. Why so? Fake grass is often treated with biocides. Exposure to biocides through a scrape or open wound (like one incurred from diving for a ball) is often associated with increased risk of antibiotic-resistant infections from Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The MSRA infection is associated with pneumonia, sepsis and bloodstream infections that can prove fatal.
For a great resource on the downfalls of herbicide use, have a listen to my Show 56 of my Low Tox Life Podcast with professor Michael Antoniou on the effects of glyphosate in a study he conducted at King’s College, London. While we’re on the podcast, show #52 the “10 toxic truths with Professor Marc Cohen” is a great listen too.
Injury risk has been shown to be greater.
Another issue with these fake turf fields is they don’t have the same cushioning that natural grass and soil provide. The rate of injury is, therefore, greater on these artificial fields as they are commonly laid over concrete or other non-pliable bases. Numerous studies have been carried out on the rate of injury since the introduction of these fields and here’s what they’ve found.
- A study of 367 men at a sporting college found that after conversion to artificial turf, there was a significant increase in the incidence of upper extremity trauma.
- Another study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that athletes were 1.39 times as likely to be injured when playing on modern artificial turf as when playing on grass.
So what can we do?
While you might feel totally helpless to bring about change, and you might after reading all of that be thinking “OH MY GOSH WHAT HAVE I/WE DONE!?” I feel the need here to bring us back to a low tox mantra: Do not feel guilty about what you didn’t know yesterday, and instead, feel excited about what you can change today!” You that you CAN improve the playing surfaces for your children and the community. It’s really all about creating awareness and getting in there when proposals are being tabled. The more people that understand these fields are not safe the more chance we have of bringing about regulation and change.
Here’s what you can do:
- Speak to your local council. I have penned personal letter that you can send to your local council. It has all the topline info that I wrote about in this post plus a few suggestions for your council, to get the ball rolling. Download it HERE.
- Enroll your kids in a team sport that either doesn’t play on fake grass or consider moving them over to another team where there play on natural grass fields.
- If your kids do play on these fields, always ensure cuts and scrapes are cleaned up and bandaged straight away to avoid unnecessary exposure to the synthetic crumbs and plastic.
- Gently share this information with close friends, teachers, and other parents. Perhaps pose it as something new you learned. This softly softly approach is guaranteed to go down better than shouting from the rooftops about yet another thing that may cause cancer. Perhaps even hit the share button on Facebook.
- Set up a local petition. If this is a subject that’s come up regarding your playground, school grounds or field, then perhaps speak to the person in the decision making position about the research you’ve come across and how we might be able to go back to real grass.
- Share this information with the sporting club board. They often have a say in what fields get laid down and providing them with this knowledge will help them to make informed decisions for future sporting fields.
So that’s a little wrap up on why our public spaces need to turf the turf! Have you checked out your local sports grounds, are there any fake grass surfaces? Maybe someone’s proposed a switch to turf at a nearby location to you, and you can jump in there with the research here or in the template letter we’ve prepared, and you can effect some preventative change. How exciting would that be?
Low Tox. Healthy People. Happy Planet.
Oh my gosh, how did I not think about this while I already know about the dangers of plastic? ! We are busy landscaping our yard and were very much considering fake turf… I am so thankful I read this post in time! Thank you Alexx!
Hi Catherine – Don’t worry. An easy one to overlook! SO excited we were able to nip this in the bud before you guys went there… Yay! x
Hi Alexx thanks so much for this article. Would you mind providing the link to the council letter please? My daughter trains on turf at least twice a week
Also do you have any information about turf used in Australia?
Our daughter plays at the side of the house where there is bricks and we just want to ‘soften’ the ground. We were going to do fake grass until I saw this – any other ideas? 🙂
If it were me, I’d just leave it. Kids learn so fast to be cautious all on their own. If you’re at all worried you could also consider removing the concrete and laying down real grass maybe?
So glad I read this! My boys are super keen to have a basketball key installed in our back garden. If synthetic ground no good – any recommendations on what you could use instead for a basketball area?
Hi Alexx! The school I’m considering sending my daughter to has only fake grass in their main playground. Eek! Would you avoid a school because of these risks?