Expert Doctor on Children’s Health Raises Alarm on Synthetic Turf

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Dr. Philip Landrigan is a respected pediatrician and expert on children’s health at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in NYC. He has written a letter (7/21/08) urging a moratorium and raising alarming concerns on artificial turf to the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

No word on whether this same letter has been sent to the NYC Department of Health or NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe (who seems to have a difficult time reversing course no matter how stunning the evidence). NYC, under Commissioner Benepe’s direction, has installed 94 artificial turf fields thus far in parks and ball fields. Despite concerns, plans move forward to install 68 additional turf fields across New York City.

Dr. Landrigan writes:

Synthetic turf fields have proliferated in recent years, and there are now more than several hundred of these installations in Connecticut and in other states up and down the East Coast. Almost no assessment of the potential hazards to children’s health of synthetic turf fields was undertaken before these fields were constructed. The stated need for their installation was a desire to improve the quality and enhance the drainage of playing fields coupled with a strong impetus to get more kids out and exercising as a way to combat the obesity epidemic.

These are laudable goals. The problem is that they were pursued without any consideration of alternatives or analysis of potential negative consequences. There was insufficient due diligence. The result now is that we are in a situation in which a number of these very expensive fields have been installed, and we are suddenly and belatedly beginning to realize that they may lead to health problems.

His recommendation is as follows:

1. A moratorium on installation of new synthetic turf fields until a careful, competent, independent study of their potential hazards has been conducted and reported to the public;

2. Immediate study of the suspected chemical hazards of synthetic turf fields.

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Dr. Landrigan’s Full Letter Outlining His Concerns Follows:

July 21, 2008

The Honorable Gina McCarthy, Commissioner
Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection
Hartford, CT

Re: Urgent need to initiate study of the potential health hazards of synthetic turf

Dear Commissioner McCarthy,

I am a pediatrician and Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

I am writing to urge you to act without delay to initiate a study of the potential health hazards to children of synthetic turf fields. I understand that such a study has been requested by the Attorney General of Connecticut, the Honorable Richard Blumenthal, and that is to be undertaken by investigators at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Synthetic turf fields have proliferated in recent years, and there are now more than several hundred of these installations in Connecticut and in other states up and down the East Coast. Almost no assessment of the potential hazards to children’s health of synthetic turf fields was undertaken before these fields were constructed. The stated need for their installation was a desire to improve the quality and enhance the drainage of playing fields coupled with a strong impetus to get more kids out and exercising as a way to combat the obesity epidemic.

These are laudable goals. The problem is that they were pursued without any consideration of alternatives or analysis of potential negative consequences. There was insufficient due diligence. The result now is that we are in a situation in which a number of these very expensive fields have been installed, and we are suddenly and belatedly beginning to realize that they may lead to health problems.

Two health problems have already been associated with synthetic turf fields:

1. Extreme Heat. On hot summer days, when the ambient temperature is in the 80’s and 90’s, temperatures of over 150 degrees Fahrenheit have been recorded a few feet above the surface of synthetic turf
fields- precisely at the altitude where children play. Vigorous play in these conditions conveys a very real risk of heat stress and even heat stroke.

2. MRSA Skin Infections. Outbreaks of skin infections caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) have been documented in children who play on synthetic turf fields (New England
Journal of Medicine, February 2005). Apparently what happens is that the turf surface creates large skin abrasions when children fall or slide on it, and these abrasions have a high potential to become
infected, because they are greater in area than the abrasions caused by dirt playgrounds.

A third health problem with synthetic turf fields which is very worrisome, but insufficiently studied is that of chemical hazards. The crumb rubber which is a major constituent of the current generation of synthetic turf fields is in many instances made from ground-up, recycled car and truck tires. These recycled tires contain styrene and 1,3-butadiene, the major constituents of synthetic rubber. Butadiene is a known human carcinogen. They also contain cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons’ and other toxic and carcinogenic materials that are either added to tires during construction or picked up on the highways. And finally there is lead, which has recently surfaced in synthetic turf fields in New Jersey, as a previously unrecognized hazard. Lead levels in several synthetic turf fields in New Jersey were found to be so high that the fields have had to be closed and decommissioned.

The need is urgent to characterize and quantify the chemical hazards of synthetic turf fields. School starts in another 6 or 7 weeks and football practice begins even sooner. Children will be in close contact with synthetic turf fields, and plans are afoot to install even more such fields. Careful independent study will inform all of us whether the suspected chemical hazards are real and will frame discussion of whether these chemicals pose hazards to human health or to the environment

I strongly recommend two actions:

1. A moratorium on installation of new synthetic turf fields until a careful, competent, independent study of their potential hazards has been conducted and reported to the public;

2. Immediate study of the suspected chemical hazards of synthetic turf fields.

Sincerely,

Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc
Professor and Chairman, Department of Community & Preventive Medicine
Professor of Pediatrics
Director, Children’s Environmental Health Center
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
17 East 102nd Street, Room D3-145
New York, NY 10029-6574
Tel: 212-824-7018

Originally Published July 23, 2008

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4 Comments

  1. LewisR

     /  December 12, 2008

    Most professional football teams and a lot of professional baseball teams have been playing on artifical turf for decades now. There must have been studies into turf for them – any chance of relying what they’ve found out? Must not be too bad, cuz with all their money, they are still playing on it.

    I wish that the Dr.’s objections could be understood, because he doesn’t say there’s a problem with the turf, just that there’s a problem of no known research (to him, anyway). And keep in mind that as for the mounds, it’s not a question of turf or grass, cuz grass will not last on the mounds. It’s a question of turf, tar, or dirt, really – pick your least worst option.

  2. cat

     /  December 12, 2008

    Hi Lewis,

    This post goes into some further detail:

    https://washingtonsquarepark.wordpress.com/2008/05/15/nyc-parks-department-sticking-to-pro-turf-stance-despite-incomplete-answers-from-study/

    And you can email Bill Crain (his contact info is within the post) for more information…

    Children obviously are more vulnerable to chemicals but we’re all at risk from exposure to these toxins – cadmium, lead, etc. – and really should minimize our exposure, especially in our parks.

    Thanks.

    Cathryn.

  3. LewisR

     /  December 15, 2008

    Cat,
    For sure I checked out your link, but it seemed to say pretty much the same – we haven’t found anything yet, so we should keep looking until we do. I did find one study that is not only very recent, but also quite detailed:

    Click to access SyntheticPlayfieldsReportFinalDraft082108.pdf


    It doesn’t say there is nothing to fear, but it doesn’t say avoid at all costs either. There’s a lot to weigh: natural things are great, but turf doesn’t require pesticedes, and so on. All in all, I thought this study was -straight on- balanced.

  4. Hi,

    One thing I have to say – I live in the tropics and, from personal experience, playing on the artificial turfs does seem a lot warmer and more stifling than on grass. But it’s a subjective sense, nothing quantifiable.

    Although no pesticides, etc are needed, I believe synthetic turfs are also very expensive to maintain, right? That’s the impression I have, anyway.

    I would be very concerned about the chemicals, too.

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