Synthetic turf, used by high schools, colleges and professional sports teams across the country, may pose a serious threat to athletes’ health if some concerns about materials used are founded.
Jason Kruse, an associate professor of Environmental Horticulture at UF, said more studies need to be conducted that are aimed at discovering health issues from synthetic turf over the course of several years before any major changes in use should be undertaken.
“Very little work has been done to investigate the long-term risks that might be associated with (synthetic turf) use,” he said.
A 2014 NBC News story found some of the same materials that are used to manufacture synthetic turf were found to contain hazardous carcinogens. The story also looked into whether the tiny black beads used to fill in the gaps between the artificial blades of grass posed any serious health threat.
These beads—often called pellets—are made from scraps of crushed car tires. Rubber from these tires has been found to contain traces of mercury, lead, arsenic and heavy metals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Researchers at Penn State University have begun investigating how bacterial populations form and exist on synthetic playing surfaces, according to Kruse.
However, manufacturers of synthetic turf say the product they produce is rid of those toxic chemicals long before they are made into pellets that are used to fill the fields.
The University of Florida football team’s indoor practice facility, which opened this year, is the only location where synthetic turf is used on the University of Florida campus. The facility cost over $15 million to complete and includes 120 yards of synthetic turf, along with two natural grass fields adjacent to the building, according to the University Athletic Association.
The Synthetic Turf Council, a group that oversees the usage and understanding of synthetic turf, refutes the claim that synthetic turf poses any serious health threat to athletes. In a statement, the council insisted that the “crumb rubber” used to create the turf has been researched and tested for harmful materials before use.
“All of that research provides confidence that there is no elevated human health or environmental risk from the ingestion, inhalation or dermal contact with synthetic turf,” the statement said.
Athletic programs continue to use the turf due to its more forgiving surface for athletes. The rubber filling used to create synthetic turf provides additional cushioning and bounce for athletes playing on the surface, which has been said to prevent injuries, according to the NBC investigation.
Athletic programs at all levels have installed synthetic turf fields within the past few years. According to the council, more than 11,000 synthetic surfaces are used across the country at schools, colleges, public parks and professional stadiums.
Synthetic turf requires less maintenance and water than natural grass, and also is more durable, according to the council. Layers in the turf also absorb the shock impact more efficiently than natural grass. However, if not regularly cleaned following heavy downpours, toxic runoff and sanitation concerns can emerge.
“Synthetic turf has to be sanitized with chemicals, where real turf has rain and sprinklers to flush away the bacteria that can come from sweat and blood,” said Matthew Nelson, a maintenance supervisor with the UF Department of Recreational Sports.
The EPA has conducted its own independent studies in recent years to determine if synthetic turf contains harmful contaminants. Results have been inconclusive, and the agency claims that there is no evidence which can confirm nor deny that crumb rubber poses a serious health risk to athletes.
For concerned parents, Kruse said without further study, the answer to how athletes can protect themselves from potentially toxic chemicals is not yet clear.
“I do not know the answer,” he said. “It’s hard to protect yourself from something if you do not know what it is.”