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Is Artificial Turf Endangering Athletes' Health?

Bert R. Mandelbaum, MD, DHL (Hon)

Disclosures

January 23, 2017

In This Article

Benefits of Artificial Turf

Soccer players' objections to artificial turf burst into international headlines a couple of years ago when prominent professional soccer players filed a lawsuit for the right to play on natural grass in the 2015 Women's World Cup.

The players finally gave in and played on the synthetic surfaces. But questions about the relative merits of grass and artificial turf have continued to simmer as schools, towns, and leagues build or replace playing fields.

Particularly in a small town, the local expert is often the sports physician. It's tough to make a definitive recommendation, so I advise any doctor in that situation to provide some history of artificial turf and a good overview of the research done so far on injury rates for the two types of surface.

Invented in 1964, artificial turf came to national attention in 1966 when the Houston Astros installed the surface that would soon be called AstroTurf® in the Astrodome.[1] The team needed a synthetic product because not enough light came through the dome to keep natural grass alive.

Artificial turf doesn't freeze or get muddy. It doesn't need water, mowing, fertilizing, or reseeding. And gophers don't make holes in it. So it's less expensive to maintain than grass.

An Obstacle to Athletic Performance?

But artificial turf can feel hard underfoot. It can cause abrasions in players who fall or slide on it.[2] It heats up on warm days. It wears out with time and is more expensive to replace than grass. In addition, concerns have arisen that the rubber infill in artificial turf may be carcinogenic.

Some perceptions of artificial turf may be out of date.[2] Early versions were essentially thick outdoor carpeting. The second generation became more similar to grass, with more space between fibers and the use of softer materials such as polyethylene. A layer of sand better approximated the playing quality of natural grass.

In the third generation, rubber granules spread between the fibers further softened the feel.[3,4]

Some manufacturers have since released new products, which may contain a layer of mixed rubber and sand, marking a return to surfaces without crumb rubber infill.[2,3] Whether these are innovations significant enough to be considered a fourth or fifth generation of artificial turf is a subject of debate.

Despite the improvements, many athletes still believe that they don't perform as well—and get more abrasions and more joint injuries—on artificial turf.

"When I play on turf, my legs can pulse and ache for up to 24 hours, and it could take 3-5 days to recover, whereas with grass, after 24 hours, I'm ready to play again," US Women's Soccer team star Alex Morgan told USA Today in 2014.[4]

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