A January 25 FNP article reported that high school athletes were advocating with the Board of Education for artificial turf (AT) playing fields in their schools. The argument was one of fairness: Districts that can afford $900,000 get an unequal advantage — year-round practice — while others don’t. We admire the call for equity for athletes in all school districts, but adopting more AT domains is a deeply complex issue that involves multiple layers of cost-benefit analysis.
While players have argued that AT surfaces will make gaming safer, the risks of playing on AT are high. The University Hospitals Institute of Sports Medicine showed that players experience 58% more injuries on AT: High-friction materials prevent pivoting, leading to more knee injuries; slipping on AT leads to turf burns and skin infections; harder surfaces aggravate injuries.
A Penn State study found that while natural-grass playgrounds heat up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit on sunny days, AT court temperatures rose to temperatures between 140 and 170 degrees. A Brigham Young University study found that “the surface temperature of synthetic turf was 37°F higher than asphalt and 86.5°F higher than natural grass.”
These studies raise serious health issues, including dehydration and even heat stroke, especially considering NOAA’s predictions for increasingly hot summers in our region. In addition, athletes risk chemical exposures to toxic filler elements in some ATs.
AT’s high costs aren’t a one-time investment: FieldTurf, an AT leader, suggests replacement every eight to 10 years for safety, and removed AT materials typically end up in landfills. Although touted as low-maintenance, the AT does require care to avoid compaction and remove debris, animal waste, mold, bacteria, and viruses. Long-term costs could very well be higher for AT, considering initial outlay, maintenance, disposal, and replacement costs. Although natural grass fields require maintenance (watering, pest control, soil improvement, mowing), they can benefit the ecosystem if properly installed and maintained. Thorough accounting is necessary in any decision.
The environmental and health risks of AT are discussed in the Frederick County Climate Response and Resilience Report, Vol. 1, p.75. The production of plastics, including artificial turf, plays a significant role in climate change and ecosystem degradation. Given our increasingly threatening and dangerous climate, we, the Multifaith Alliance of Climate Stewards, urge all parties involved to carefully research and weigh the long-term and short-term costs of decisions regarding the use AT compared to natural grass: The future of our students depends on us!