Helping you make better health choices

In shops now or delivered to your home from only £3.50 an issue!

Subscribe!

Artificial turf: Not so fantastic plastic

MagazineApril 2009 (Vol. 20 Issue 1)Artificial turf: Not so fantastic plastic

Across the globe in schools, stadiums, parks and play-grounds, natural grass is increasingly being replaced by low-maintenance, hard-wearing artificial turf

Across the globe in schools, stadiums, parks and play-grounds, natural grass is increasingly being replaced by low-maintenance, hard-wearing artificial turf. It requires little up-keep, and delivers an all-weather playing surface for children and athletes. So-called 'lazy lawns' are even cropping up in our homes, providing the not-so-green-fingered with an enviable lush-looking lawn all year round.

While its advantages over natural grass are many, there are mounting concerns that synthetic turf-or at least certain types of it-may be hazardous to our health. In the US, research conducted by several public-interest groups has even prompted a federal investigation into such arti-ficial surfaces. In the meantime, some health officials are proposing a ban on new fake-turf installations until government agencies have studied the potential health risks and environmental hazards.

So what's all the fuss about?

Snakes in the grass

One of the main concerns voiced by environmentalists is that synthetic turf contains rubber from recycled tyres-known as 'crumb rubber'-which contains several particularly dangerous substances. Used as an infill material in the newer types of synthetic turf, it provides a cushion-ing surface. Safety information has generally focused on the health benefits of crumb rubber for athletes as this cushioning effect supposedly reduces joint injury.

However, the spotlight is now on the potential public health risks from exposure to tyre crumbs, especially to children. As Patti Wood, executive director of the non-profit Grassroots Environmental Education group, says, "This crumb rubber is a materi-al that cannot be legally disposed of in landfills or ocean-dumped because of its toxicity. Why on earth should we let our children play on it?"

That's a good question. Crumb rubber contains chemicals that are known or suspected to cause health problems. The most common types of rubber used in tyres are made up of ethylene-propylene and styrene- butadiene, plus vulcanizing agents, fillers, plasticizers and antioxidants in different quantities, depending on the maker. Tyre rubber also contains polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalates, heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (Environ Health Perspect, 2008; 116: A117-22).

Several studies suggest that some of these chemicals can be released-and potentially inhaled-from crumb rubber in synthetic turf. Indeed, the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) found that VOCs from crumb rubber in indoor artificial turf pitches can become aerosolized into a breathable form during sports use (www.parks.sfgov.org/wcm_recpark/SPTF/ NIAP1105.pdf). VOCs can damage the nervous system, liver, kidney, blood-forming organs, genetic material and reproductive organs, as well as cause allergies and cancer.

Similarly, a report by the Califor-nia Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) found that 49 chemicals were released from recycled tyre crumbs, seven of which are known carcinogens (www.ciwmb.ca.gov/Publications/Tires/62206013.pdf).

A 2007 study commissioned by Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), a US non-profit organization based in Connecticut, found off-gassing and leaching from synthetic-turf rubber crumbs under laboratory conditions. It identified 25 chemical species with 72-99 per cent certain-ty, including the irritants benzothia-zole and n-hexadecane; butylated hydroxyanisole, a carcinogen and suspected endocrine disruptor; and 4-(t-octyl) phenol, a corrosive that can seriously damge the mucous membranes (www.ehhi.org/reports/turf/turf_ report07.pdf).

Although the results of the study have been criticized by the American trade organization, the Synthetic Turf Council, for not being true-to-life, EHHI's director of public-health toxicology, Dr David Brown, argues that the lab tests do approximate conditions found in the field. "It is clear the recycled rubber crumbs are not inert, nor is a high temperature or severe solvent extraction needed to release metals, volatile, or semivolatile organic compounds," he states (Environ Health Perspect, 2008; 116: A117-22).

A genuine health risk?

These studies are troubling as crumb rubber can now be found in schools, universities, public parks, stadiums and sports facilities across the world. What's more, it's also used in garden-ing mulch and, in playgrounds, as an alternative to sand or woodchips.

But can these tiny rubber granules really cause us harm?

According to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the answer is probably not. Based on the NILU data from indoor sports halls, the report concluded that off-gassing from synthetic turf does not cause any elevated health risk, even in children-a group that is especially vulnerable to chemical exposures. Nevertheless, the report goes on to say: "A reservation must, however, be issued as regards the developmentof asthma/airway allergies, where the knowledge that is currently available is limited."

The researchers also point out that little or no toxicological information is available for many of the chemicals shown to be released into the air from synthetic turf. They also sug-gest that there may be even more chemicals yet to be identified (www. isss.de/conferences/Dresden%202006/Technical/ FHI%20Engelsk.pdf).

In the US, the report by the Cali-fornia OEHHA also states: "Overall, we consider it unlikely that a one-time ingestion of tyre shreds would produce adverse health effects." As for cancer, the OEHHA concluded that the risk would be below the one-in-a-million risk level considered acceptable.

However, as the EHHI points out, the analysis assumes that there would be only one single exposure in a lifetime which, in its opinion, is unlikely.

In fact, when the OEHHA assumed an increased exposure (regular play-ground use for the first 12 years of life), the estimated cancer risk nearly trebled to 2.9 per one million from ingestion (hand-to-mouth contact) of chrysene, one of the suspected human carcinogens found in tyre rubber.

Clearly, more research is needed to determine whether crumb rubber poses a significant health risk to the public. The EHHI, however, believes there is already enough information available to call for a moratorium on installing any new athletic fields or playgrounds using ground-up rubber tyres-at least until additional research is undertaken.

Other turf concerns

Crumb rubber isn't the only problem with artificial turf. Concerns are mounting that some artificial turf fields are contaminated with lead-and it's not the rubber infill that's to blame.

A health advisory issued last June by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) described how New Jersey health officials found high levels of lead in the dust from an athletic field in Newark. After determining that the lead source was the artificial turf, they began to test other artificial fields, and discovered that those made of nylon or nylon/ polyethylene-blend fibres contain levels of lead that pose a potential public-health problem. However, turf made with only polyethylene fibres contained very low levels of lead.

It turns out that a pigment con-taining lead chromate is used to make the turf green and hold its colour in sunlight. It's not clear, though, how widely used this pig-ment is.

According to the CDC, newly laid artificial fields present a low risk for harmful lead exposure because the turf fibres are still intact. However, as the turf ages and weathers, lead is released in dust that may be ingested or inhaled. At present, it is not known how much lead the body may absorb from such exposures, but we do know that lead can cause neuro-logical development symptoms such as learning deficits (www2a.cdc.gov/ HAN/Archive-Sys/ViewMsgV.asp?AlertNum= 00275).

Even more alarming, research by the California-based watchdog group Center for Environmental Health (CEH) found that the danger of lead poisoning from synthetic turf is not just from sports fields. Independent testing revealed high levels of lead in the artificial grass used for indoor/ outdoor carpeting, fake lawns and playgrounds (www.cehca.org/documents/ lead_in_grass.pdf).

The CEH has begun notifying each of the 15 turf manufacturers and retailers in the US of its intention to sue under California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act unless the companies agree to recall their products or reformulate their artificial turf so that it contains less lead.

Whether lead contamination is a problem in the UK or other countries is not known at this time.

Although the results of the study have been criticized by the American trade organization, the Synthetic Turf Council, for not being true-to-life, EHHI's director of public-health toxicology, Dr David Brown, argues that the lab tests do approximate conditions found in the field. "It is clear the recycled rubber crumbs are not inert, nor is a high temperature or severe solvent extraction needed to release metals, volatile, or semivolatile organic compounds," he states (Environ Health Perspect, 2008; 116: A117-22).

Towards safer turf

The CDC is currently awaiting information from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to help guide future public-health recommendations and actions on amounts of lead in artificial turf. In the meantime, the agency advises washing hands and clothing after playing on artificial turf to minimize exposure. The CDC also recommends sitting on a towel or blanket in a vehicle after exposure to fake turf, and discourages eating while sitting on synthetic turf, or drinking from containers left open on it or nearby.

But what about the toxic rubber infill? Fortunately, a number of companies have found novel ways to address this issue. In Italy, for example, a new thermoplastic infill material has been developed that is believed to be non-toxic. Floor sur-face manufacturer Mondo makes something called Ecofill, a polyolefin-based granule used in synthetic turf. According to the company, Ecofill disperses heat more efficiently, is highly shock-absorbent, and contains no polyvinyl chloride, chlorine, plasticizers, heavy metals or other harmful chemicals-and it's 100-per-cent recyclable.

Infill made from plant-derived materials is another alternative. Limonta Sport USA produces an infill made from coconut husks and cork called Geo Safe Play. The company's spokesperson Domenic Carapella comments, "There are certainly alternatives to crumb rubber. There is no longer a reason to sacrifice the playing quality and more importantly the health of children" (Environ Health Perspect, 2008; 116: A117-22).

Joanna Evans

Fake grass: other concerns

- Artificial turf can heat up to extremely high temperatures when exposed to sunshine, which can be a hazard to users. US research shows that synthetic turf fields can get up to 60 degrees hotter than natural grass, with temperatures reaching 160 degrees F (71 degrees C) in summer (Environ Health Perspect, 2008; 116: A117-22).

- Friction between skin and artificial turf can cause abrasions and burns to a greater extent than natural grass, which is an issue for some sports such as football. More worrying, the abrasions caused by artificial turf have been linked to a greater incidence of MRSA infection (N Engl J Med, 2005; 352: 468-75).

- Synthetic turf fields can contribute to increased water contamination from rain, or from spraying or misting. The EHHI study (see main story) found that 25 different chemicals and four metals (zinc, selenium, lead and cadmium) were released into water from the crumb-rubber infill.


Teeth and gums: The root cause

Appendicitus

You may also be interested in...

Sign up for free today

Sign up now to get your FREE 17-point Plan to Great Health

Free membership gives you access to our latest news reports, use of our community area, forums, blogs, readers' health tips and our twice-weekly
e-news letter.

WDDTY Recommends

Latest Tweet

About

Since 1989, WDDTY has provided thousands of resources on how to beat asthma, arthritis, cancer, depression and many other chronic conditions.

Start by looking in our fully searchable database, active and friendly community forums and the latest health news.

Positive SSL Wildcard

Facebook Twitter

Most Popular Health Website of the Year 2014

© 2010 - 2016 WDDTY Publishing Ltd.
All Rights Reserved