As a mother, I used to think that artificial turf and rubber playground surfaces were a clever and attractive alternative to grass fields. As a scientist, however, I learned that my children were being exposed to unsafe chemicals without my knowledge or consent. I recently wrote to the mayor, superintendent of schools and members of the Westfield Town Council and Board of Education to share scientific information about artificial turf and playground surfaces. I want to provide the same information to you, so you can determine what is best for Westfield.
As president of the National Center for Health Research, I have testified about these products to local, state and federal agencies and legislators; parents; and others who want to ensure that our children are not exposed to dangerous chemicals that can harm them now or as they grow up. Our nonprofit think tank includes scientists, physicians and health experts who conduct studies and scrutinize research conducted by others. We explain scientific and medical information that can be used to improve policies, programs, services and products.
Toxic Chemicals in Artificial Turf and Infill Materials
In recent years, scientists have learned about lead and PFAS in artificial turf, as well as the risks of some of the newer infill materials that are available to replace tire crumb and that are used in rubber playground surfaces. Tire crumb and rubber have well-known risks, containing chemicals that increase obesity; contribute to early puberty; cause attention problems such as ADHD; exacerbate asthma; and eventually cause cancer. However, the plastic grass itself has dangerous levels of lead, PFAS, and other toxic chemicals as well.
PFAS are of particular concern because they enter the body and the environment as “forever chemicals.” They are not metabolized and do not deteriorate, accumulating over the years. PFAS can cause liver damage and other serious health problems. PFAS from artificial turf can get into groundwater, streams, etc. and from there into drinking water. New Jersey has one of the most stringent standards for PFAS in drinking water.
Replacing tire waste with silica, zeolite and other infill materials also has substantial risks. For example, it is well known that “particulate matter” can cause lung problems and eventually cause lung cancer.
Evidence of Harm vs. Evidence of Safety
Scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (which is part of NIH) have concluded that unlike most other chemicals, hormone-disrupting chemicals (found in artificial turf and plastic) can be dangerous at very low levels, and also when they combine with other exposures in our environment. That is why the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned these chemicals from toys, pacifiers, teething toys and other products used by young children.
Companies that sell and install artificial turf often claim there is “no evidence children are harmed” or “no evidence that the fields cause cancer.” This is often misunderstood as meaning the products are safe or are proven to not cause harm. Neither is true.
It is true that there is no clear evidence that an artificial turf field has caused specific children to develop cancer. However, the statement is misleading because it is virtually impossible to prove any chemical exposure causes one specific individual to develop cancer.
As an epidemiologist, I can tell you that for decades there was no evidence that smoking or 9/11 exposures caused cancer. It took many years to develop that evidence, and the same will be true for artificial turf.
We know that the materials used in artificial turf and rubber playground surfaces contain carcinogens. When children are exposed to those carcinogens day after day, week after week, and year after year, it increases the chances of our children developing cancer, either in the next few years or later as adults. That should be adequate reason not to install them in your community.
I grew up in New Jersey and know that when the weather is warm and/or sunny, it is usually quite pleasant to be outside. But when the temperature above the grass is 80 degrees Fahrenheit, artificial turf and rubber playground surfaces can reach 150 degrees or higher. A sunny 90-degree day could exceed 160 degrees on these surfaces. These temperatures can cause “heat poisoning” as well as burns.
There have never been any safety tests required prior to sale that prove that any artificial turf products are safe for children who play on them regularly. In many cases, the materials used are not publicly disclosed, making independent research difficult to conduct. None of these products are proven to be as safe as natural grass in well-constructed fields.
Officials in communities all over the country have been misled by artificial turf salespeople and scientists hired to lobby. They were erroneously told that these products are safe. On the contrary, there is clear scientific evidence that these materials are harmful. The only question is how much exposure is likely to be harmful to which children? We should not be willing to take such a risk. Our children deserve better.
I am not paid to write to you or to speak at meetings on this topic. I do so because I care about the health of my children and yours.
Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D.
National Center for Health Research
1001 Connecticut Ave, Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20036
Editor’s Note: Diana Zuckerman is the president of the National Center for Health Research. The Center conducts, analyzes, and explains the latest research and works with patients, consumers, and opinion leaders to use that information to improve their own health and to develop better programs, policies and services. Zuckerman received her Ph.D. in psychology from Ohio State University and was a post-doctoral fellow in epidemiology and public health at Yale Medical School.
Re-published with Dr. Zuckerman’s permission.