New study casts doubt on safety of synthetic turf
In the fall of 2017, a resident of western Albemarle County was surprised to see a caravan of dump trucks making their way up a rural road into the woods.
That’s where contractors for the University of Virginia dumped a mysterious green cargo – 199 tons of synthetic turf. The news alarmed a local parent, Kate Mallek. She knew that turf fields were filled with shredded tires that provide cushioning but contain potentially toxic chemicals.
“We don’t allow burning of tires," she says. "We don’t allow people to simply throw tires into our environment. They have some lead. There are also some carcinogenic substances in them. It’s not something we want in our water.”
And the plastic in synthetic turf contains Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl Substances or P-FAS, also known as forever chemicals because they break down so slowly over time. Pete Myers, founder and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences – based in Charlottesville – says P-FAS in turf could be dangerous.
“Not only are the kids getting stuff on their skin – the tire crumb is all over them, but they’re probably breathing P-FAS, which is a real problem,” he concludes.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission says studies show no elevated health risk from playing on recycled rubber tires – a claim echoed by the industry.
“The materials used in synthetic turf products have been thoroughly reviewed by both federal and state government agencies and are considered to be non-hazardous,” says Melanie Taylor, President and CEO of the Synthetic Turf Council, a group that represents manufacturers of artificial fields.
She points to the first part of an EPA report as proof of safety, but the EPA, which reviewed scientific studies, said they were limited, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission said kids who play on surfaces made with recycled rubber should not eat or drink near the stuff and should wash hands and other exposed skin afterward.
The EPA is now at work on a second study that will assess risk, and scientists in Europe have just published their analysis of 91 samples from synthetic turf fields around the world.
“We are very worried about it,” says Jacob de Boer, a Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology at the Free University of Amsterdam. His team found all of the crumb rubber samples contained hazardous compounds – some exceeding safety standards set by the European Union for cancer-causing chemicals.
“There are also these P-FAS compounds which have an effect on your immune system, and that effect is much more sensitive than for cancer,” de Boer says.
He’s quick to add that risk is likely related to how long and how closely players are in contact with the turf.
“It’s not a matter of one game or one day or a week, but if you do it regularly, training for years, and you play all your matches there, then it is a problem, so the dose is important.”
That said, Holland has now agreed to phase out crumb rubber fields by 2030.
Here in the U.S., Melanie Taylor says the industry continues to innovate and develop new forms of synthetic turf. Some, for example, use walnut shells or a mixture of coconut husks and cork, known as corkonut.
And she predicts continued growth of her industry with as many as 16,000 synthetic fields already installed and up to 1,500 new ones going in every year. In our next report, we’ll talk about what happens when those fields wear out, and why environmentalists want Virginia to put new regulations in place.
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With the return of warm weather, more student athletes will be playing outside, many of them competing on artificial turf. Manufacturers say their product – made with recycled rubber tires – is an environmentally friendly alternative to grass, but with 16-thousand synthetic turf fields already in place nationwide and as many as 15-hundred more going in each year, disposal of worn-out fields poses a problem.
A typical turf field comes with a warranty of 8-12 years. When that time is up, the field, which is made from layers of plastic and shredded tires or crumb rubber, is hauled away. Mary Lehman, a delegate from Maryland, heard from a constituent who saw rolls of used turf sitting in a vacant lot.
“The concern was that the crumb rubber infill was washing down the hill into a storm drain," she recalls. "I think everyone can agree we don’t want that happening. We don’t want shredded tires to end up in our waterways, and in Maryland pretty much everything ends up in the Chesapeake Bay.”
Because the stuff is bulky, Lehman says landfills in her state don’t accept artificial turf.
“We really don’t know where it’s gong. It probably is mostly going out of state to Virginia where they either are land-filling or possibly incinerating the fields or the crumb rubber infill, and there are places in Virginia where they are allowed to burn rubber,” she says.
Unscrupulous contractors may even dump turf in rural areas or find property owners willing to store the stuff for less than a landfill might charge.
At Prince William County’s Solid Waste Authority, Director Scott MacDonald thinks it’s unfair that cities or counties have to deal with artificial turf and other materials that can’t be recycled.
“We didn’t buy the products. We didn’t sell the products, and we didn’t make the profits, but at the end of their life the public looks to us for a solution,” he explains.
MacDonald would like to see Virginia join 47 other states that are members of the Product Stewardship Institute, headed by Scott Cassell. He helps write laws making producers of products responsible for their disposal.
“There are 124 of these laws on the books for 15 product categories in 33 states – products like pharmaceuticals, medical sharps, mercury-containing products and Maine and Oregon just passed the first two state laws on packaging,” he says.
And Cassell claims this approach works in other countries.
“These type of systems have been in place in Europe for over 35 years on packaging, over 15 years in Canada and in other places all around the world. Companies will make changes to lower their costs, and these laws give them incentive. It’s really about making products with less material and more reusable and recyclable material.”
During the last legislative session, Virginia Delegate Betsy Carr introduced a bill to require that manufacturers accept and properly dispose of or recycle their products. It died in committee.
“Sometimes you bring up something new, it’s dismissed summarily the first time," she observes, "but you know people begin to think about it and talk about it and maybe it takes a couple more years.”
Lawmakers did agree to form a task force that would study it.
In the meantime, Melanie Taylor with the Synthetic Turf Council notes worn-out fields can be re-used at local driving ranges, band practice fields, pet parks, bullpens and batting cages and equestrian stables.
A Danish company says it will soon open a plant in Pennsylvania to recycle synthetic turf, and for now the industry argues it is conserving billions of gallons of water each year and eliminating the need for pesticides, fertilizers and mowing to maintain grass fields.
In Virginia, computer manufacturers are required to have recovery plans and accept used computer equipment for recycling or reuse from consumers without paying a separate fee.
Sellers are also required to accept used lead acid batteries from consumers when a new battery is purchased.