As some professional sports teams switch to artificial turf (while others refuse to play on it), schools and parks all over the nation are considering making the change, too. But it’s a controversial decision made only after much-heated discussion. Is artificial turf hazardous to play on?
Or maybe you’re a suburban homeowner tired of mowing the lawn. You notice enticing ads for artificial grass that looks just like the real thing. How safe is it for your children and pets?
In this article, we look closely at artificial turf & grass from health and environmental perspectives. This analysis will allow you to make an informed choice about whether artificial turf & grass are right for you and your family or whether they’re too toxic to your health or to the environment.
Table of Contents
- What Is Artificial Turf?
- What Is the Difference Between Artificial Turf and Grass?
- Are Artificial Turf & Grass Bad for Your Health?
- Is Artificial Turf Linked to Cancer?
- Is Artificial Turf Bad for the Environment?
- Can Artificial Turf Be Recycled?
- Alternatives to Artificial Grass
- What to Do If You Can’t Avoid Artificial Turf
- Some Good News
- Highlights on Artificial Turf & Grass
What Is Artificial Turf?
Artificial turf (syn-turf) is a synthetic replacement for natural grass on sports fields and playgrounds. It is made out of rubber from used car tires and plastic fibers set on a backing and glued or stapled into place.
According to the first report released in 2019 by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on recycled tire crumb in artificial turf, there are over 12,000 artificial turf fields in the U.S. Approximately 1,200-1,500 are installed each year. The average lifespan for artificial turf is 8-10 years.
Invented in the 1960s by Monsanto through Ford Foundation funding, artificial turf was originally called Chemgrass. Its first installation was for an urban playground, but its most famous placement was in the Houston Astrodome. The nickname Astroturf naturally followed.
The earliest artificial turf was like a short pile carpet with a simple foam backing. Installations using different materials increased in the 1990s across the United States. Artificial turf is now common worldwide.
In 2020, the Synthetic Turf Council estimated the total value of installed fields in North America to be $2.7 billion. Over 6,000 acres in the U.S. are covered with artificial turf today.
Today, artificial turf is made with plastic fibers—usually nylon, polypropylene, or polyethylene. Pelletized tires make up the crumb rubber (tire crumb), often used as infill material. This means the small pieces (crumbs) fill in the spaces between the plastic blades of artificial grass that make up the turf.
Each pellet is ¼ inch or less in diameter. Two or three pounds of crumb rubber is used in each square foot of artificial turf. So on an average field measuring 80,000 square feet, there are up to 240,000 pounds of crumb rubber present.
Plastic pellets, sand, or rubber-coated sand—or some combination—could also serve as the infill. The purpose of infill is to make the blades stand up straight, but it also helps with drainage, traction, and cushion.
Both the crumbs and the blades are attached to a backing material which is usually made of a petroleum-derived substance. Traditionally, the backing may be:
More recently, backing could be made of:
- Ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM)
- Thermoplastic elastomer (TPE)
- Nike Grind (recycled athletic shoes)
- Coconut hulls
Shock pad underlayments made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), nitrile butyl rubber, or polyurethane are also common in artificial turf.
Antimicrobials are often applied to artificial turf to prevent microbial buildup and preserve its useful life. Other chemicals are added to provide color and luster to the blades.
Here is a video that shows how artificial turf is made:
What Is the Difference Between Artificial Turf and Grass?
The major differences between artificial turf and grass relate to the characteristics of the plastic grass blades, the type of infill, and the backing style.
Here’s a table summarizing the differences:
|Artificial Turf||Artificial Grass|
|Short blades||Long blades|
|Stiff blades||Soft blades|
|Rubber infill (most common)||Sand infill (preferred)|
|Backing: Hole-punch or Non-permeable||Backing: Flow-through (pets)|
Are Artificial Turf & Grass Bad for Your Health?
There are numerous health and safety concerns related to artificial turf and grass. Here’s the short list followed by more detail for each below.
- Chemical exposure
- Microbial infection
- Heat stress
- Physical Injury
The Penn State webpage on artificial turf research is helpful for a comprehensive listing of articles on these topics.
1. Chemical Exposure
Artificial turf and grass are made with several toxic chemicals, including PFAS and heavy metals, which are bad for your health.
Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are lab-made chemicals containing multiple fluorine-carbon bonds. The sheer strength of these chemical bonds means they are practically unbreakable. Because of the difficulty in breaking them apart, PFAS are known as “forever chemicals.” Today, there are more than 9,000+ different PFAS in use.
PFAS are more notorious for their use in non-stick cookware and raincoats, but the plastic fibers of artificial turf also contain numerous PFAS. They prevent the fibers from sticking to machines during their manufacture. Testing for specific PFAS in artificial turf revealed the presence of PFOA and PFOS, both of which have been banned from production in the U.S. because they are known carcinogens. It is still possible to find these PFAS in products made in other countries.
Unfortunately, testing is not currently available for most PFAS. So, besides the uncertainty in knowing the health effects of specific compounds, there is even less understanding about the additive or synergistic effects of multiple PFAS exposure. (Synergism refers to the combined effect of many PFAS being greater than the simple sum of their individual effects.)
The PFAS in artificial turf and grass have been linked to many serious health effects, including:
- Thyroid disease
- Liver and kidney malfunction
- Immune system depression
- Cancer (kidney, testicular)
- Developmental malformations
- Low birth weight
- Elevated cholesterol
PFAS exposure occurs through inhalation, ingestion, and dermal (skin) contact. Because artificial turf has not been thoroughly tested for safety, the US EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the CDC/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) called for more study on the health effects of PFAS in 2016.
Chemicals From Used Tires
Artificial turf and grass also contain chemicals found in used tires, including:
- Carbon black
- Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs)
- Semi-volatile organic chemicals (SVOCs)
Many of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens. According to the EPA/CDC 2019 Report, 21 metals, 31 VOCs, and 49 SVOCs were identified in rubber crumb. Carcinogenic benzene was located closer to the artificial turf surface, where exposure is greatest.
Indoor fields generally had higher levels of VOCs and SVOCs compared to outdoor fields. This fact suggests potential exposures may be greater at indoor locations. The US EPA and the CDC have not yet published the second part of their review slated to discuss the risk assessment of these chemicals in artificial turf.
A 2014 article looking at PAHs released from nine artificial turf sites in Italy revealed the high heat of the materials caused the continuous release of these toxic chemicals in significant amounts through evaporation. The researchers called it a threat to public health.
Lead From Used Tires
Some artificial turf contains elevated levels of the neurotoxin lead (2,000 to 9,000 parts per million). Since the CDC set a maximum contaminant level goal of zero tolerance for lead in light of toxicological considerations, lead exposure from artificial turf is hazardous to health.
More specifically, the CDC has stated that exposure to lead dust is a concern on older artificial turf that has undergone weathering. However, the agency admitted that they do not know how much lead is actually absorbed by people from exposure to lead dust due to degraded artificial turf. By contrast, the CDC speculates that exposure should be lower or non-existent on brand new artificial turf.
The CDC also said that artificial turf made of nylon or nylon/polyethylene blend fibers “contains levels of lead that pose a potential public health concern.” Their testing showed that artificial turf fields made with only polyethylene fibers contained lower lead levels.
2. Microbial Exposure
The first federal report on rubber crumb in artificial turf stated that exposure to microbial pathogens is possible at artificial turf fields. For example, a team outbreak of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was associated with turf burns (abrasions) occurring on artificial turf. But, the study concluded that team sharing of the whirlpool may be responsible for the spread.
3. Heat Stress
It is not uncommon to find on artificial turf temperatures 40℉ or more higher than those on natural grass fields. One source documented in Utah a 200℉ measurement on artificial turf when the nearby grass temperature was a balmy 78℉. Another frightening example from Missouri registered 138℉ at the players’ head level on a 98℉ day.
In an attempt to lower the temperature, maintenance crews may douse the artificial turf with water. Although this provides some immediate relief, unfortunately, the temperature quickly remounts within minutes.
Playing competitive sports on such hot surfaces may lead to melting shoes or turf burns when players hit the ground in active play. Heat stroke or collapse coupled with trips to the ER are likely unless players take frequent water/rest breaks.
4. Physical Injury
There are several online sports blogs that provide anecdotal accounts of higher incidences of injury on artificial turf compared to real grass. For scientific analyses, a 2023 systematic review of 53 articles published between 1972 and 2020 on sports-related lower extremity injuries published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, observed “a higher rate of foot and ankle injuries on artificial turf, both old-generation and new-generation turf, compared with natural grass.”
Although the studies suggested that the rates of knee and hip injuries were similar on artificial turf and natural grass, advanced-level football players were more prone to knee injuries on artificial turf. Not surprisingly, those few articles that reported a higher overall injury rate on natural grass were funded by the artificial turf industry.
Researchers looking at high schoolers noted in a 2021 study that adolescents were 58% more likely to be injured on artificial turf. Football, soccer, and rugby athletes were at a significantly greater injury risk on artificial turf. Upper and lower extremity, as well as torso injuries, occurred more often on artificial turf.
A 2019 study suggested that the type of plastic fibers in the artificial turf influences the risk of sports injury. Older turf made with nylon is more abrasive than newer types of turf made with polypropylene or polyethylene. As a result, there were more injuries on the nylon turf.
Is Artificial Turf Linked to Cancer?
In 2023, articles emerged in the popular press associating the PFAS in artificial turf with glioblastoma—a rare form of brain cancer—in six Philadelphia Phillies’ baseball players. While there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that PFAS cause many types of cancer, so far brain cancer is not one of them.
As far as we know, to date, PFAS are strongly associated with these forms of cancer:
- Kidney Cancer
- Testicular Cancer
- Ovarian and Endometrial Cancer
- Prostate Cancer
- Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Thyroid Cancer
- Thyroid Cancer and Childhood Leukemia
For the record, the crumb rubber in artificial turf may contain known carcinogens such as benzene. Carcinogenic contaminants like dioxins may be present in trace—but potent—amounts.
Yet researchers do not find statistically relevant data to support the conclusion of a cancer-artificial turf link despite the compilation of cancer occurrences by University of Washington soccer coach Amy Levin.
In these types of real-world observational situations, it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to separate out the potential effects of different chemicals involved. It’s possible that it’s not one specific type of chemical causing harm, but rather the combined “toxic soup” of many different toxicants.
Is Artificial Turf Bad for the Environment?
Artificial turf is bad for the environment in many ways. Chemicals used to make it are toxic to aquatic organisms and wildlife. The chemicals discussed below contaminate soil and water during player use and after disposal. Additionally, artificial turf degrades into microplastics which are hazardous to all living organisms and ecosystems.
PFAS in the Environment
The PFAS in artificial turf are called forever chemicals because they never fully break down in the environment into harmless substances. They are called persistent pollutants for this reason. PFAS also build up (bioaccumulate) in organisms and biomagnify (concentrate) in larger species, including humans.
According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), there is a PFAS crisis in wildlife and ecosystems. In animals, tumors and lower reproductive success are linked to PFAS. Due to the toxic nature of these chemicals, there are advisories for anglers and hunters not to eat the fish and game, especially in the Great Lakes region.
Similarly, there is extensive PFAS contamination in surface and groundwater all over the country, particularly close to military bases where PFAS were used in firefighting foams.
In artificial turf, PFAS get carried away in rain or when the surface is hosed off. Players carry it off the field, too, on shoes. Then these chemicals contaminate the soil and water.
Likewise, once artificial turf is landfilled, PFAS-containing leachate enters soil and water. If incinerated, PFAS do not break down but spread into the air.
Microplastics and Nanoplastics in the Environment
The plastic blades and backing in artificial turf as well as the shredded tire components eventually wear down through use, age, and weathering into microplastics and even smaller nanoplastics.
By definition, microplastics and nanoplastics are tiny pieces of plastic—some even microscopic, measuring 5 millimeters or less—that enter air, water, and soil. These plastic bits have been found as far away as the Arctic and as close as the air around you.
To date, there is scientific evidence that microplastics are in (to name just a few):
Scientists are actively investigating the health effects of microplastic and nanoplastic ingestion or inhalation. Preliminary data suggest all body systems are negatively affected.
Can Artificial Turf Be Recycled?
Companies that sell artificial turf may tell you that their product is recycled after their usual 8-year warranties are expired. There are two reasons why this is not true.
Recycling of artificial turf cannot occur today in the U.S. because:
- No recycling plants in the nation are equipped to handle artificial turf at this time. (Re-Match, the only company that can recycle 85% of syn-turf, had 2021 plans to open a plant in the U.S., but nothing has yet materialized.)
- Plastic recyclers are not able to recycle products composed of several different types of plastic and mixed with other materials, such as rubber crumb.
Even the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry trade group, admits their product has an end-of-life problem: “Unfortunately, converting synthetic turf to a recyclable material that is usable cannot be done…”
So you may wonder what happens to the 200,000+ lbs. of infill plus the 40,000 lbs. of plastic grass that make up the average artificial turf when it’s ready to be replaced. Landfill fees for that amount of solid waste could easily be $30,000-$60,000 or more.
The Synthetic Turf Council estimates that 750 turf fields will need to be replaced annually in the U.S. That’s roughly 330 million pounds of solid waste per year!
According to the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER): “In reality, rather than being recycled, these old turf fields and their rubber crumb infill are dumped in abandoned lots, alleys, and even wetlands.” Unfortunately, with the growing risk of severe wildfires due to the climate crisis, abandoned turf piles are prime combustibles, releasing toxic chemicals. Artificial turf fires have been reported in California and Washington.
If retired artificial turf is incinerated, there are hazardous substances released into the air. Besides PFAS, burning plastics like PVC in the shock pads under the grass blades releases carcinogenic dioxins and furans. You may have heard about those toxins produced from burning PVC in the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment in February 2023.
Alternatives to Artificial Grass
As widespread drought driven by the climate crisis creeps across the U.S., municipalities are offering cash rebates for replacing thirsty natural grass with landscapes that require little or no water. Some homeowners may think artificial grass is their best option. However, in light of the information presented in this article, we cannot recommend artificial grass.
A scientific study comparing water retention and drainage on artificial vs. natural lawns showed increased runoff and decreased water retention on artificial grass. Along with the water, artificial lawns carry off plastic bits and tire crumb, leading to contamination of nearby soils and waterways.
Artificial grass also means there is less habitat for wildlife, including insect pollinators. Without insects, there won’t be any birds in your yard, either. Adding fake birds to your artificial lawn just wouldn’t have the same aesthetic appeal.
Designing a xeriscape yard showcasing drought-tolerant native plant species will allow you to save water and energy while providing a home to local wildlife. Turning your lawn into a no-mow meadow is another option. Pollinators will thank you. It looks good, too!
What to Do If You Can’t Avoid Artificial Turf
Sometimes, avoiding artificial grass might be easier said than done. Maybe the only playground by your house uses artificial grass, but you still want your kids to be able to play outside at the park. Maybe you or your child plays a sport on artificial turf and you don’t want to give it up just because of that.
So, here are some things you can do to minimize exposure to the toxic chemicals in synthetic turf:
- Minimize touching the turf when possible. Don’t let kids dig around in the rubber crumb. Try to minimize hand-to-face contact when playing on the turf.
- Wash your hands, take a shower, and launder clothing after playing on the turf.
- Don’t eat during or right after play if you haven’t washed your hands yet.
- Shake the rubber crumbs off your clothing and out of your shoes before heading home. Take your shoes off at the door. These steps will help minimize the amount of toxicants you track into your home. If you do end up tracking rubber crumbs home, vacuum them up.
Lastly, if you want to take a more active approach to getting rid of toxic turf in your community, Toxic Free Future has some pointers on how to take steps like hosting community meetings and contacting local officials.
Some Good News
Despite the fact that artificial turf is still widely used, it seems that the tide may be turning.
Not only have professional athletes throughout the country been pressuring the leagues to get rid of it, but some municipalities have banned it in public parks, including at least five municipalities in Massachusetts (like Boston), two in California, and several in Connecticut. Other places around the globe, such as Wales, are considering doing the same.
Additionally, some sports teams are implementing hybrid fields, which use natural grass “with synthetic turf elements.” Although it’s not clear what elements are used and how safe and/or eco-friendly these fields really are, they are probably better than 100% artificial fields, at the very least.
So, it appears that the the landscape may be slowly shifting back in a more natural direction!
Highlights on Artificial Turf & Grass
Made of various plastics and used car tires with added PFAS, artificial turf & grass are hazardous to your health and to the environment in many ways.
There is ample evidence showing that there are more player injuries on artificial turf than on natural grass. Some of them are serious burns due to the elevated temperature of artificial turf in the summer.
Exposure to PFAS is linked to increased cancer rates and immune system depression, among many other negative health outcomes.
Artificial turf degrades over time, releasing microplastics and nanoplastics, PFAS, lead dust, and other toxic chemicals that contaminate soil, air, and water. All of these pollutants are hazardous to marine animals and plants.
Homeowners tired of mowing natural grass may consider converting their lawn to a native plant xeriscape. Choosing drought-resistant plants that attract pollinators will help restore local ecosystems.