Toxic Artificial Turf — fact or fiction?

April 12, 2011

Jim Fitzsimmons
Associate Director
Campus Recreation and Wellness
University of Nevada, Reno

In the last decade the number of new generation synthetic turf installations has increased dramatically. Most professionals in our industry have heard all the benefits of investing in this product. It requires no mowing, no watering, no fertilizers or herbicides. There is no need to reseed or rest the field. It allows for increased field use which can equate to more revenue generation and increased programming. Cost of initial installation is somewhat high but the lifespan of the field is between 10 and 15 years.

In a 2005 analysis for the City of San Francisco Recreation and Parks, Turf Manager Lemar Morrison states “the latest generation of synthetic turf is safer to play on than natural turf. It is flat, even, soft and it does not have gopher holes, bumps, or muddy patches. New synthetic turf does not have the disadvantages of older “Astro-Turf,” which was abrasive and prone to causing injuries to toes, ankles and knees.” In arid states where the cost and availability of water is a major concern artificial turf is a sensible option.

While most of the literature concerning synthetic turf is positive there are some individuals and organizations that are decidedly against the proliferation of this product. You may be aware that two New Jersey sport fields were temporarily closed due to health concerns raised concerning lead levels. The elevated lead levels were found to be the result of nylon fibers which were treated with color pigments that contain lead chromate. Newer fields that use polyethylene fibers were tested and revealed very low to no detectable levels of lead.

Groups who oppose the installation of synthetic turf have had some success in stalling projects basing their opposition on safety for the users and environment. At the time of this writing twelve states are considering moratoriums on new synthetic fields until more conclusive testing has been completed. If you are planning to install synthetic turf be aware that you may have to field questions and concerns from these groups. Due diligence requires that you understand any potential health and safety concerns with this product before you install it at your institution.

Currently there appears to be four primary areas of concern:

Toxins and Heavy Metals — Materials such as zinc and lead have been identified in the crumb rubber component of synthetic turf. There are concerns that these may leach into ground water or be inhaled or absorbed through direct contact by individuals playing on the field. In addition to the heavy metal levels there is a concern that the rubber crumbs give off gas noxious chemicals such as a variety of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The current research conducted by both a variety of Public Health Departments, industry scientists and independent groups suggests that there is no significant risk is to either children or adults.

Heat — Synthetic turf fields are hotter than natural grass. Dr. C. Frank Williams and Gilbert E. Pully of Brigham Young University conducted a study in 2002 measuring the air temperature, at the surface, six inches above the surface and five feet above the surface of synthetic turf, asphalt and natural turf. The study was conducted in June and the researchers caution that this was a preliminary study however the surface of the synthetic turf was significantly warmer than natural turf. (See Table below). It should be noted that the increase in temperate has more to do with the amount of sunlight striking the surface of the field than the ambient air temperature.

Surface Average Surface Temperature between 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM
Synthetic Turf           117.38º F        high 157º F
Natural Turf               78.19º F         high 88.5º F
Concrete 94.08º F
Asphalt 109.62º F
Bare Soil 98.23º F

The authors of the study state “the heating characteristics of the A.T. make cooling during events a priority. The Safety Office at B.Y.U. set 120º F as the maximum temperature that the surface could reach. At this temperature the surface had to be cooled before play was allowed to continue on the surface. The surface is monitored constantly and watered when temperatures reach the maximum.”

Additionally it is recommended that shade and water be provided during events and the participants monitored for heat stress.

Staph Infections — With the increased concern of staphloccus aureus infection and the heightened awareness of methicillin-resistantstant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) some have associated these pathogens with synthetic turf. A recent study conducted by Penn State’s College of Agriculture debunks these claims. This study measured the level of staphylococcus at twenty synthetic infilled turf systems in Pennsylvania and found no traces of staph on any of the samples. As per the study: “infilled synthetic turf systems are not a hospitable environment for microbial activity” and “the microbe population of natural turf far exceeds anything we’ve found in the infill systems.” It should be noted that the study did find S. aureus on surfaces such as blocking pads, stretching tables and used towels.

End Use — Environmental groups have pointed out that synthetic turf fields have a life span and raise concern that the fields will end up in land fills at the end of their lifespan. The fields have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years and they will need to be replaced. However many of the primary components of the turf system will be reused at this time.


1. McNitt, A (2008, May). Staph infections associated with artificial turf?
Retrieved July, 2, 2008 from Ohio State University Web site:

2. Williams, F., Pulley, G. (2002, May). Synthetic surface heat studies.
Retrieved July 2008 from Brigham Young University, Web site:

3. Gibson, G. (2008 April). Mondo confirms its artificial fiber pigments are free of lead.
Retrieved July, 2008 from Web site:

4. McNitt, S. (2008 May). A survey of microbial populations in in-filled synthetic turf fields.
Retrieved July 2, 2008 from Penn State College of soil science Web site:

5. Morrison, L. (2005, December). Natural and synthetic turf a comparative analysis.
Analysis presented at the December 20, 2005 San Francisco Recreation and Parks meeting, San Francisco, CA.(2007, October).

6. Artificial Turf Fields Health Questions. Retrieved June 25, 2008 from Connecticut Department of Public Health Web site: http://www.dph.state.ct.ux

7. Miller, S. (2008 April). Experts agree there is no scientific evidence of health risks in new jersey synthetic turf fields.
Retrieved June 22, 2008 from , Synthetic Turf Council Web site:

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