COMMENTARY | Artificial Turf – A Plague on the Earth

Kyla Bennett

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Artificial Turf – A Plague on the Earth

This commentary was originally published in the Fall 2023 edition of PEEReview.

Captions: The Green Lie. Despite manufacturer claims to the contrary, artificial turf cannoy currently be recycled. There are currently no artificial turf recycling facilities in the U.S. and old fields are unceremoniously, and often illegally, dumped all over the country or burned in incinerators.
Caption: PEER has been working to restrict the use of artificial turf for nearly 15 years and to require truth in advertising rules. Our past efforts have induced federal agencies such as EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to withdraw their safety endorsements for the product. Our research has been used to fuel a growing wave of false advertising and nuisance suits against manufacturers. Our uncovering of the presence of PFAS in turf is also sparking growing calls to remove turf by everyone from organic farmers to parent groups. Even the National Football League Players Association is calling for a return to grass fields, citing the PFAS health risk to players and their families as an added concern on top of the rising number of leg injuries that are crippling players. This growing opposition signals that we are entering a pivotal period in this long fight. Click to learn more.Like a nasty rash, artificial turf has spread beyond sports fields to urban lawns, schoolyards, and parks. It is an impervious surface that blocks the ability of soil to support insects or breathe. It has been shown to significantly increase ground surface temperatures and consequently ambient air temperatures near the ground, thus aggravating climate change impacts. The resulting heat islands are so intense that they can melt tennis shoes.

Studies show that the amount of water needed to cool artificial turf on a hot day can exceed the water requirements of some natural grasses in the same environment. And even then, the cooling effect only lasts 20 minutes.

In addition, artificial turf releases plastic fibers into the environment, making it a significant source of plastic pollution. One recent study found that more than 15% of the mesoplastics and macroplastics content in an adjoining lake, stream, and ocean waters were artificial turf fibers.

To make matters worse, there are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in artificial turf. In 2019, PEER and The Ecology Center discovered PFAS in the blades and backing of artificial turf. Since then, artificial turf manufacturers have conceded that PFAS are added to the machines to aid the extrusion of the hot plastic and as “a slip agent that is intentionally added to the molten hydrocarbons to make the plastic grass blades free of defects.”

PFAS are a large family of chemicals that provide heat, stain, and water resistance. Yet, due to the strong carbon-fluorine bonds that occur in these chemicals, PFAS do not easily break down in the environment and are thus called “forever chemicals.”

PFAS are associated with cancer and linked to growth, learning, and behavioral problems in infants and children; fertility and pregnancy problems, including pre-eclampsia; interference with natural human hormones; and immune system problems. The negative immune system effects of PFAS are extremely concerning given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A compilation of toxicity studies shows that virtually every PFAS examined is correlated with these adverse health outcomes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued proposed regulatory limits for six PFAS (PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFHxS, PFNA, and PFBS); they concluded that there is no safe dose of PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.

Their presence in artificial turf poses a plethora of problems. Routes of PFAS exposure include ingestion, inhalation, and dermal absorption, and athletes and children playing on artificial turf are subject to all three exposure pathways. PFAS also leach off the fields into surrounding waters, potentially impacting drinking water supplies.

PEER is at the center of a national campaign to ban artificial turf to protect both public health and the environment. We are working with a growing network of scientists, school officials, and concerned parents.

Kyla Bennett is PEER’s Director of Science Policy and the Director of PEER’s New England/Mid-Atlantic field office. She is a scientist and attorney formerly with U.S. EPA.

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