As architects and developers look to create lasting and cost-effective solutions for ground cover and athletic applications, artificial turf has grown into a formidable market. Not just for sports fields, it is increasingly marketed to homeowners and for common spaces of residential and commercial properties. A 2020 study found that more than 265 million square feet of synthetic turf and 777 million lbs. of infill were in use in North America, showing an industry growth of 15 percent since 2017.[1] Just 63 percent of the turf installed in 2020 was in athletic fields.

While synthetic turf may appear to provide economical and ecological advantages such as a lack of need for watering, fertilizing, and pesticide use, a deeper look into the human and environmental impacts of synthetic turf and its related infills shows a more complicated picture. 

Athletic fields made from synthetic turf require infill to keep the grass blades upright and provide shock attenuation. Infill generally consists of small particles of rubber or other synthetic polymers, plant or mineral-derived particles, or some combination of these. One of the cheapest infill options is ground up recycled tire scrap, also known as “crumb rubber.” Because crumb rubber contains a large number of chemicals known to be toxic to human health and the environment, numerous studies have attempted to estimate health risks of playing on fields with tire crumb infill; some have identified risks, while others have concluded risks may be minimal. All of the studies have limitations, and no robust epidemiological study has been conducted on this topic.[2] These limitations have prompted the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to conduct a more in-depth study on the topic.[3]

Concerns over crumb rubber extend beyond chemical exposures to humans while playing or resting on the surfaces. These include exposures during manufacturing, processing, or installing the product, as well as the degradation of rubber infill, leaching of chemicals from the infill, and disposal and recycling of artificial turf components.[4] Additionally, all synthetic turf products have potential to contribute to the growing concern over microplastic pollution.[5] Research shows that recycling options are limited and most turf and infill is not recycled, which can mean significant impacts when these installed turf fields reach their end of life.[6]  

Alternative infills are available, each with its own claims to superiority over crumb rubber. None of the alternative infills has been studied to the degree that crumb rubber has, so it can be challenging to weigh the health and environmental implications of each type. Our Turf Hazard Spectrum looks at the available information on chemical hazards known to be present in the most common types of turf and infill, as well as noting where transparency in product formulation is lacking. Based on all this information, it compares a variety of turf and infill options along with natural grass treatments and generates guidance on how to select products that likely have fewer chemical hazards.

HBN Turf Hazard Spectrum

HBN’s guidance on athletic turf is based on a hazard identification approach. This precautionary approach considers the best available information and identifies which products contain the most hazardous content. While this is not a life cycle assessment, it does consider upstream chemicals used in manufacturing the product, installation and maintenance hazards, and end of life chemical concerns.

You can learn more about our research and Turf Hazard Spectrum in the recording from our Oct. 28, 2020 webinar.

Here is some general guidance to use when selecting turf for athletic fields or other outdoor spaces:

  • Choose natural grass over synthetic turf.
  • Choose grass that is appropriate for the soil conditions and regularly aerate the field.
  • Transition to a turf management program that reduces the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and strives to eliminate them.
  • If using synthetic turf, select plant-based or mineral-based infills over synthetic infills. If you must use synthetic infill, avoid using crumb rubber.
  • Avoid using turf or infill that advertise antimicrobial protection.
  • If using a shock pad, ask for disclosure of the chemical content and avoid using in-situ pads or prefabricated pads made with crumb rubber or PVC.
  • If selecting synthetic turf, identify turf and infill recycling options prior to installation.

You can learn more about the “whats” and “whys” of these recommendations in the “Read More” section found on our Turf Hazard Spectrum page.

View the full Hazard Spectrum


Footnotes

[1] STMA. “Synthetic Turf Council Releases 2020 Synthetic Turf Market Report for North America.” Accessed September 9, 2020. https://www.stma.org/news/synthetic-turf-council-releases-2020-synthetic-turf-market-report-for-north-america/

[2] Watterson, Andrew. “Artificial Turf: Contested Terrains for Precautionary Public Health with Particular Reference to Europe?” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14, no. 9 (September 12, 2017): 1050. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph14091050.

[3] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. “Synthetic Turf Field Recycled Tire Crumb Rubber Research Under the Federal Research Action Plan Final Report: Part 1 - Tire Crumb Characterization (Volumes 1 and 2).” U.S. EPA & CDC/ATSDR, July 25, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-08/documents/synthetic_turf_field_recycled_tire_crumb_rubber_research_under_the_federal_research_action_plan_final_report_part_1_volume_1.pdf
California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. “Synthetic Turf Studies.” Text. OEHHA. Accessed October 21, 2020. https://oehha.ca.gov/risk-assessment/synthetic-turf-studies.

[4] Cheng, Hefa, Yuanan Hu, and Martin Reinhard. “Environmental and Health Impacts of Artificial Turf: A Review.” Environmental Science & Technology 48, no. 4 (February 18, 2014): 2114–29. https://doi.org/10.1021/es4044193

[5] Eunomia Research & Consulting Ltd. “Environmental Impact Study on Artificial Football Turf.” FIFA, March 2017. http://quality.fifa.com/media/1230/artificial_turf_recycling.pdf.;
California State Water Resources Control Board. “Microplastics.” Accessed October 9, 2020. https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/drinking_water/certlic/drinkingwater/microplastics.html;
Hung, Charlotte, Natasha Klasios, Xia Zhu, Meg Sedlak, Rebecca Sutton, and Chelsea M. Rochman. “Methods Matter: Methods for Sampling Microplastic and Other Anthropogenic Particles and Their Implications for Monitoring and Ecological Risk Assessment.” Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management (August 8, 2020). https://doi.org/10.1002/ieam.4325.

[6] Berger, Louis. “Recycling and Reuse of Crumb Rubber Infill Used in Synthetic Turf Athletic Fields.” Report under contract to CalRecycle, March 31, 2016.