Why artificial turf could increase our risk of serious injury.
Whether you’re a kid starting out or a seasoned veteran running around with mates on the weekend, Aussies love nothing more than to get their competitive juices flowing out on the sporting field.
That’s why it’s always a crushing blow on a Saturday morning when we get that call to say our match or training has been cancelled due to wet weather.
In recent years, that call has become less frequent thanks to the rapid emergence of all-weather synthetic or astroturf fields.
By the end of 2018, the NSW government anticipates that up to 40 synthetic fields could be in operation around Sydney. In addition to being all-weather friendly, these synthetic fields also require less maintenance and are significantly more durable – capable of coping with more than 60 hours of play per week as opposed to less than 20 hours for natural turf.
So, what’s not to love about artificial fields? Well, how about a potential increased risk for serious injury and illness.
It may not be well publicised but synthetic fields can get up to more than twice the surface temperature of natural turf on a hot day. It’s recommended that these fields are constantly watered throughout the day during use, but on days exceeding 30 degrees, the surface temperature of the field can reach as much as 75 degrees.
As you can imagine this dramatic increase in temperature can increase the risk of severe dehydration, burn-related injuries including blisters and skin burns, particularly among young children.
In 2015 at the Women’s World Cup in Canada, the synthetic fields wreaked havoc on the participants with surface temperature reaching close to 70 degrees. Australian player, Michelle Heyman, perhaps summed up the extreme conditions best when she compared the field to “Walking on hot coals with your skin ripping and slowly cracking, constantly.”
Joe Rogers of Lawn Solutions Australia, Australia’s largest network of turf specialists, is very concerned by the extreme heat that these synthetic fields absorb and the serious impact on kids who use them around Sydney.
“The level of heat that these fields can get to just cannot be ignored, particularly in a climate like ours,” Rogers said.
“You only need to look at the impact it (synthetic turf) had on professional athletes at the last Women’s World Cup to see the effects. At 65 degrees surface temperature it’s not safe for professional athletes and we’re then asking and letting amateurs and kids play on it.
“Most football seasons start in March, and this year in Sydney we’ve had weather that has exceeded 30 degrees in April, which will translate to a surface temperature greater than 60 degrees on a synthetic field. It’s just not safe!”
While the emergence of synthetic turf is relatively new here in Australia, America has more than 12,000 nationwide and have conducted a number of studies that highlight the potential risks of regularly playing on the surface.
Burns, abrasions and even the increased potential to contract cancer have all been flagged in studies that looked at the negative effects of synthetic fields.
The biggest area of concern is the exposure to potential cancer causing materials. The majority of synthetic fields around the world use rubber pellets to give the surface a bouncy feel similar to watered soil. These pellets are sourced from different scrap tires which have been broken down to small pieces and laid over the surface.
A chemical analysis study conducted by Yale University in 2015 found that 12 of the 96 chemicals found in rubber pellets were registered carcinogens (substance capable of causing cancer), and up to 48 other chemicals hadn’t been tested by the government.
A follow-up study by the Washington State Department of Health in 2017 concluded that there was no evidence that the rubber pellets contained enough cancer-causing chemicals to put those who play on the surface at risk, but further research was certainly needed. And it’s this cloud of doubt that has alarmed so many American families and users of synthetic turf.
Anyone who’s ever played on synthetic turf knows there’s no way of not coming into contact with the pellets. It bounces up, can get in your hair and will always get into your boots. This doubt surrounding the rubber pellets has seen a push for more natural alternatives to replace the tire-scrap pellets across America, including natural cork and natural sand silica – which contain no carcinogens. However, rubber pellet-based surfaces are still being produced, and are by far the most common material used.
Almost 350,000 people in NSW participate in some competitive form of football (soccer) every year and will likely spend some time playing on a synthetic surface. And while the majority of Sydney’s synthetic surfaces are for football only, other football codes are coming around to the idea with Shute Shield rugby club Easts now playing their competitive matches on the newly laid Woollahra Oval.
This willingness by other codes to give synthetic fields a go will likely see the number of participants and synthetic sporting fields skyrocket in the near future. Which according to Rogers, is all the more reason people need to at least be made aware of all facts and potential hazards of synthetic fields, not just the benefits.
“Trends show that more and more councils and football clubs, now even rugby clubs are willing to give synthetic a go. But for these full-on contact sports, where the player has direct contact with the surface, I just think there are too many risks associated with synthetic turf,” Rogers admits.
“There’s a fair bit of information regarding the risks associated with synthetic turf within our industry – provided through the governing body (Turf Australia) – but there isn’t enough information going out to the general public.
“A lot is made of the benefits but it’s the public that use these surfaces, and it’s only fair they’re armed with all the facts.”