Play it safe with artificial turf

used by permission © 2007 Wm. L. Brown,

Would our community leaders and parents knowingly and willingly increase children's exposure to harmful toxins? Of course not—with the key words being "knowingly" and "willingly." We all want to do well by our children. That is why the Cleveland Heights City Council was the first in the country to ban the use of pesticides on public property, school grounds and playing fields. The wisdom of that measure is supported by health experts, who suggest limiting one’s exposure to pesticides and other toxins.

Two years ago, artificial turf was laid down on Denison Field. Research on such fields has resulted in warnings and recommendations from public health and pediatric environmental health experts. There are concerns that the many toxic chemicals used in artificial turf's crumb rubber infill may make their way into children's bodies, the surrounding environment, soil and groundwater.

In 2010, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) was instrumental in persuading the turf industry to eliminate lead from their products because lead is regulated by law. According to Michael Green, CEH's executive director, "Lead was only one of many concerns" related to artificial turf.

CEH's website lists 33 chemicals found in tire-based turf infill that constitute health hazards as identified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. These include metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and aromatic solvents. Next to each chemical, the CEH notes its associated harmful effect—cancer, genetic damage, reproductive harm, or, in most cases, some combination.

Experts at both CEH and the Children's Environmental Health Center (CEHC) at Mount Sinai Hospital have expressed concern that athletes might be inhaling, ingesting or absorbing these toxins through their skin. While athletes are at highest risk from inhaling particles stirred up by their play, experts are also concerned that they could track the particles into their homes, exposing others. Children are most vulnerable to toxins because their bodies are still developing.

Philip Landrigan, pediatrician and director of CEHC, has cited three other concerns related to artifical turf: dangerous field temperatures (exceeding 150 degrees F on warm days), staph infections (from abrasions and turf burns) and injuries such as "turf toe." He recommends that communities delay installing more of these fields "until questions about their safety have been studied more thoroughly."

I am also concerned about the harsh chemicals and pesticides used to clean the fields, the price tag for these disposable fields that last only 7–10 years before they must be replaced, and the subsequent cost of their disposal. Each field costs between $750,000 and $1,000,000.

Because many children are already playing on artificial turf fields, I believe that community, school and athletic program leaders should regularly publicize the concerns listed above, along with the following tips from CEHC for safer use of these fields:

  • Do not use artificial turf fields on days with temperatures in the 80s and above.
  • Clean and monitor any "turf burns.”
  • Attempt to remove all pellets from shoes and clothes before leaving the fields.
  • At home, shake out equipment and clothes in the garage or over the garbage.
  • Shower and wash thoroughly after playing on the field.

For fields built before 2010 that may contain lead, the Centers for Disease Control recommends the following additional precautions:

  • Clothes worn on the field should be removed and turned inside out as soon as possible after play, to avoid tracking contaminated dust elsewhere. In vehicles, sit on a large towel or blanket if it is not feasible to remove clothing. Clothes, towels and blankets should be washed separately, and shoes worn on the field should be kept outside the home.
  • Do not eat on the field or turf.
  • Avoid contaminating drinking containers with dust and fibers from the field. When not in use, containers should be kept closed in a bag or other covered container on the side of the field.

It is unlikely we will ever rid the world of toxins, but when it is possible to protect our children and our environment from unnecessary exposure, I believe we should do so.

Joan Spoerl

Joan Spoerl is an early childhood consultant and proud resident of Cleveland Heights.

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Volume 6, Issue 2, Posted 11:16 AM, 01.31.2013