Synthetic Turf Comes Under Fire, But Lack of Proof Makes it a Preferred Playing Field Surface

October 9, 2015, Michael Colangelo — USA Today Sports

Synthetic turf using crumb rubber has come under attack from the Women’s World Cup and now an updated NBC news report is questioning whether the recycled rubber used in the turf is causing health problems. Without further research, the benefits of field turf — at least in regards to the environmental and business considerations — outweigh the supposed risks. Synthetic turf provides a consistent playing field that allows municipalities all the way up to professional teams to deal with cost certainty, player safety, and environmental concerns.

The Women’s World Cup was the first time a major sporting event even discussed the turf issues. Artificial turf was the main surface in the tournament hosted in Canada. The answer was simple, grass turf can’t grow easily in Canadian conditions, and it wasn’t cost effective to have temporary grass surfaces. Although there were multiple complaints before the tournament, it ended up being overblown. The quality of the play was still solid and that was reflected in the ratings.

Now a NBC report reignited questions about the health concerns of playing on fields primarily made up of crumb rubber. The report cites over 60 soccer players stricken with cancer, and questions whether it is because of the turf. It is important to note that according to US Youth Soccer, over 3 million participants played in the U.S. in 2014, and many of those participants are playing on synthetic turf fields.

Currently there is no proof that synthetic turf led to the types of health concerns NBC addressed. NBC even mentions the lack of proof in its own report. Dr. Laura Green, a MIT-educated toxicologist, is quoted saying, “There’s zero reason to be concerned that playing on synthetic turf will put your child at risk for cancer. It’s simply not true.” There is also a study by the state of Connecticut which did not find any elevated cancer risks from playing on turf.

In response to the NBC report, the Recycled Rubber Council, an industry group, contended that, “we unequivocally stand behind these products and we would not put our children and grandchildren on fields or playgrounds with crumb rubber if they were hazardous.”

For minimal risks, field turf with crumb rubber provides a number of benefits. Environmentally it is just a stronger alternative to natural grass. With much of the country experiencing drought conditions, field turf allows cities and towns to save water that would have to be used on upkeep. Natural grass also requires heavy treatment with fertilizers that have proven health risks. This doesn’t even consider the amount of field paint –again filled with chemicals — needed to keep the field of play delineated.

Field turf is also a sound investment. It is cheaper than natural grass and that cost savings is important, especially with many city and state governments going through debt problems. It also allows local governments to create multi-purpose fields that can be used on back-to-back days for a range of sports. The EPA should look into the issue, but with all of the information we have now, it doesn’t make sense to start banning field turf with crumb rubber for less efficient grass fields.