Artificial Turf: Is Grass Really Greener — or Safer?
Players hate it, but scientists say it’s mostly harmless. Here's why you should still play it safe
Before the 2015 Women’s World Cup kicked off in Canada, many players in the tournament complained about the soccer fields. All were covered in artificial turf rather than real grass. As a rule, most athletes aren’t fans of artificial turf. For one thing, those plastic fibers can scrape knees and legs during a slide.
Soccer players in particular seem to be wary of artificial turf. In a 2014 study published in BMC Sport Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation, 94 percent of major league soccer players said they believed injuries were more likely on turf than on grass.
Even so, there isn’t a lot of evidence that athletes who play on artificial turf are more likely to get hurt. A Scandinavian study of 20 pro soccer teams found that traumatic injuries were only slightly more common on turf than on grass, for example. The study did find that male players were a bit more likely to sprain their ankles on artificial turf.
Fake fields may be somewhat more risky for football players. A 2012 study found that among American college football players, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries were 40 percent more likely to occur on artificial turf than on grass.
Flakes in the grass
Besides the potential for injury, there have been concerns about the make-up of artificial turf. For that reason, scientists have closely investigated the chemicals in turf — especially the tiny pellets of rubber that are sprinkled throughout the green parts. Although researchers haven’t found these to be a health threat, the skin scrapes and burns that are more likely to occur on artificial turf may be.
A 2005 study of an outbreak of drug-resistant staph bacteria, or MRSA, in the National Football League found that every case started with a scrape. The study found no evidence of MRSA actually living in artificial turf. But players did complain that scrapes are more common and more severe on the turf, a phenomenon that would make the players more vulnerable to infection.
Most artificial fields today are covered with so-called “third-generation” turf, which is softer and more forgiving than the stiffer stuff. That extra bounce comes from tiny particles of rubber recycled from car tires.
Because rubber can contain some toxic compounds, quite a bit of research has been done to see if exposure to turf poses a threat to players. A report the journal Environmental Science and Technology stated that chemical exposure appears to be so minor that even professional players who practically live on the field don’t seem to be at risk, even if they happen to have a rubber allergy.
The environment may be the real loser when it comes to artificial turf. The report also found that compared to rainwater, the tire rubber crumb and zinc in artificial turf are potential sources of heavy metals and organic contaminants that could harm “the growth, survival and reproduction of aquatic plants, protozoans, sponges, mollusks, crustaceans, fish and amphibians.”
Playing it safe on artificial turf
Artificial turf has some definite advantages over grass. It doesn’t need to be watered, fertilized or mowed. And it doesn’t turn brown and die in the winter. Nor does it seem to be nearly the health hazard it’s believe to be. Even so, if you’re going to play on artificial turf, it doesn’t hurt to take a few precautions.
Besides general conditioning, consider adding some extra exercise to strengthen knees and ankles to create more stability and lessen the chance of injury in a fall or slide. Also be sure to clean and bandage scrapes or turf burns before they have a chance to get infected. You wouldn’t want to be sidelined by a preventable injury or infection.