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Athletic Playing Fields

Selecting Safer Alternatives

We receive many questions from communities asking about health and environmental issues associated with artificial turf and safer alternatives for athletic and playing fields. If your community is trying to make a decision about whether to install artificial turf or manage grass fields organically, the information and resources on this page can help.

Frequently Asked Questions

A large number of chemicals are found in tire crumb. Many of these have adverse effects on human health or the environment. Some of the chemicals found in tire crumb are endocrine disrupters (e.g., phthalate esters); some are known or suspected carcinogens (e.g., arsenic, cadmium, benzene, styrene); and some are associated with other human health effects. For example, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in tire crumb infills are a particular concern due to carcinogenicity. As of August 2022, eight PAHs in tire crumb infills will be subject to new limits in the European Union.

Children are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals because their organ systems are developing rapidly and their detoxification mechanisms are immature, among other factors. For these reasons, it is particularly important to make careful choices about children’s exposures. For more details:

Use of artificial turf presents a number of issues other than human health concerns related to chemical hazards. Refer to pages 11 through 13 of the report "Athletic Playing Fields: Choosing Safer Options for Health and Environment" and the Physical Hazards document for more details on the topics described below.

Heat: In sunny, warm weather, artificial turf can become much hotter than natural grass, raising concerns related to heat stress for athletes playing on the fields. Some towns, such as Burlington, MA, have adopted policies to protect athletes from high temperatures. For more information on approaches to determining safe temperatures on play surfaces, see page 2 of our artificial turf fact sheet

Environmental concerns: Environmental concerns include loss of wildlife habitat and contaminated runoff into the environment. Another environmental concern is migration of synthetic particles, including infill and plastic grass blades, into the surrounding environment. In 2020, reuse of turf in a construction project led to the release of a large quantity of crumb rubber into the Puyallup River in Washington State. Recent findings indicate that a chemical found in tires is responsible for mortality of coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest.

Snow removal: Manufacturers recommend using specialized equipment for removing snow for winter play, such as snow blowers designed for turf fields. One Massachusetts town estimated the cost for snow blowing the field would be $5,000- $10,000 per snow storm. Damage caused to a field during snow removal could impact the warranty of the field. Snow removal may also remove infills or fibers from the field, moving them into the environment. Local conservation regulations may restrict snow removal from fields depending on proximity to wetlands, waterways, or other protected lands. 

Disposal: Artificial turf fields are typically replaced every 8-10 years. Some synthetic materials may be reusable or recyclable, though recycling options are often limited. Others may have to be disposed of in a landfill or through incineration when the field is due for replacement. Challenges related to disposal are discussed in The Seattle TimesThe AtlanticEnvironmental Health Newsand Zembla.

Injuries: One particular concern is increased rates of turf burns (skin abrasions) associated with playing on artificial turf. These abrasions are a risk factor for serious bacterial infections.

Many parents, athletic directors and town administrators have contacted us with this question. According to organic grass athletic field experts, the key to a well-functioning field is healthy soil and a healthy grass root system. Individual fields can be diagnosed and maintained in a way that addresses specific issues and performance needs.

Take a look at the Springfield case study to find the number of hours played at three organically managed grass fields. If you want to estimate the number of playable hours on a soccer field in your community, you can use Treetop Park, the full-sized soccer field, as an example. Treetop Park is used for approximately 1,050 hours of practice, games, and informal activity annually.

We’ve also documented playing time on fields in the Marblehead case study. The town has maintained high quality, organically managed grass fields for more than 15 years. In the case study, you’ll find hours of use per week for four town fields, which are used for field hockey, baseball, lacrosse, soccer and more.

If you want to estimate the number of playable hours on a football field in your community, you can use Hopkins Field, the full-sized football field, as an example. This field was used for multiple sports and recreational activities for a total of 1,860 hours in 2018. 

You can also view hours of use in our Martha's Vineyard case study.

We have compiled information from athletic field landscaping professionals, as well as lessons learned by individual communities that are successfully maintaining their athletic fields with organic practices into a fact sheet to help communities learn how to transition to organic grass management. 

Our case studies feature the successes, costs, and functionality of organically maintained grass playing fields:

Here are a few external resources for you to learn more about organically managed grass playing fields, and communities that are using them:

  • The Field Fund- offers both supplemental maintenance and renovations of playing fields, and training, with the goal of improving the quality of recreational spaces in Martha's Vineyard
  • Midwest Grows Green- initiative of the Integrate Pest Management institute, focused on sharing pesticide and fertilizer reduction information 
  • Grassroots Environmental Education- a New York-based educational non-profit organization, focused on educating the public about the links between common environmental exposures and human health

For personalized help with grass field issues, or converting a field to organic management, a consultant can be a helpful resource. Below are a few that specialize in organic athletic fields and work in Massachusetts. Note that TURI does not endorse any specific provider. 

Resources

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Featured Videos

Three Massachusetts Communities Maintain Athletic Fields Organically

Safer Alternatives for Athletic Fields

Healthy Building Network/ TURI webinar

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