Artificial Turf – A Plague on the Earth
This commentary was originally published in the Fall 2023 edition of PEEReview.
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.