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On Our Radar: Artificial Turf

On Our Radar_Artificial Turf

The first type of artificial turf (or “Chemgrass” previously given brand name) was in the 1960s which was installed in the Houston Astrodome. Shortly after the first installment the name changed to AstroTurf. 

The arrangement of these turfs are set to have multiple layers of materials from geotextile, drainage pipe, drainage stone, leveling layer, energy pad, backing layer with weep holes, and turf fiber. The first generation of these turfs was designed with polypropylene, a softer material which allowed players to have less risk of injuries. Second generation had sand spread in between the fibers which provided stability for the players. Third generation had longer fibers which aim to make it more comfortable for playing.

Recently, a market analysis, by Infiniti Research Incorporated, reported that the global market for sports turf is expected to grow by more than 11% by 2019.   These findings are no surprise since for many, these artificial turfs (or synthetic grass) are a cost effective substitute unlike the relatable fees of maintaining natural grass. Approximately 500,000 gallons of water is used per year to maintain natural grass, depending on the region or country which does not include the additional fees of fertilizers, pesticides, landscaping, etc. Hence, more and more institutions, schools, major sport fields, and recreational & park areas opt for artificial grass as a resourceful option to being more environmentally friendly and pesticides-free.   

Not everyone, however, is sold on artificial turf.  Some athletes have expressed concerns about its possible link to cancer.  The University of Washington women’s goalkeeper coach Amy Griffin has been very outspoken on the issue after she began keeping a list of soccer players around her that had been stricken with cancer. Ms. Griffin recently reported that her list, which she admits is purely anecdotal, now includes more than 200 people in total, 168 of them soccer players – many goalkeepers.

In some studies, toxics were said to be found within turfs, most relating to metals, carcinogens, latex and other rubbers, as well as phthalates. Professor Andrew Watterson, an environmental health expert from the University of Stirling along with the Environment Scientifics Group was able to test the pellets spread on the artificial turf which confirmed the number of carcinogens within the rubber crumb.

Some of the government’s brightest scientists within the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and the Consumer Product Safety Commission are jointly conducting research into the safety of these pellets in the artificial turf.  This study seeks to fill important data and knowledge gaps about artificial turf, characterize constituents of recycled tire crumb and identify ways in which people may be exposed to the tire crumb based on their activities on the fields.  A draft status report of this study is expected to be released later this year. 

Thus far limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb.  Existing studies, however,  do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb, over time.  Currently, there is no consensus between the studies and some have found that the levels of toxics are below those found in children’s toys, which are products that are closely monitored and have defined thresholds for toxic ingredients. 

According to XL Catlin’s Casualty Risk Engineering team, there are many different companies offering different artificial turf products which present a research challenge.  The lack of product uniformity makes systematic studies inherently difficult and will likely contribute to inconsistent findings in the future.

Other potential risks related to injuries, such as burns.  While natural grass fields get a few degrees hotter than air, some synthetic turf fields have measured 60 to 70 degrees hotter than the outside air.  Last August, the Los Angeles Times reported that five local high schools had to replace artificial fields because of melting tire crumb pellets.  This also supports some recent feedback from artificial turf users that some fields are aging prematurely and need to be replaced after five or six years instead of 10-12 years as advertised by manufacturers which may potentially drive up costs and environmental load again. Of course, how long a field lasts also hinges upon its use. 

All in all, there is still a lot to learn about artificial turf and the potential health, injury and other potential risks it may pose.  That’s why artificial turf is on XL Catlin’s emerging risk radar.  

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