Child Development
Q&A: Are Children Safe Playing on Artificial Turf?

Q&A: Are Children Safe Playing on Artificial Turf?

March 18, 2023

Is artificial turf safe? The debate is heating up:

  • The Connecticut legislature is reviewing a new bill to ban crumb rubber playgrounds across the state.
  • California state scientists are evaluating the “potential human health effects associated with use of recycled waste tires in playground and synthetic turf products.”
  • Last month three federal agencies launched a joint investigation into the safety of popular crumb rubber surfaces on playgrounds and playing fields.

Dr. Robert Wright, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City, answers our questions about how artificial turf may pose concerns for children’s health.

HCHW: The Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center has called for a moratorium on the use of artificial turf made from recycled rubber tires. Why?

Robert Wright: We are advising against the use of crumb rubber fields until safety is proven. This is because the product is made from recycled automobile tires, which are well known to contain metals and other toxic chemicals. Some components of tire rubber are linked to cancer and others are toxic to the nervous and other systems.

The risks of exposure have not been fully studied, especially in the context of the wide range of potentially harmful chemicals, which are found in rubber tires. Ironically, if a field was filled with discarded tires it would be considered a hazardous waste site. The primary difference is that the tires were ground up in the crumb rubber field.

What makes children uniquely vulnerable to harmful exposures from crumb rubber surfaces?

RW: There are many reasons to think children will be more vulnerable:

  • Children on average are lower to the ground and therefore closer to the source of off-gassing.
  • Children have higher ventilation rates relative to adults and if significant off-gassing occurs, they will inhale a larger amount relative to their body size.
  • If ingested, a crumb rubber pellet would represent a larger per kilogram dose in a child versus an adult, because of their smaller size.
  • Many of these fields are in schools and therefore used almost exclusively by children.
  • Young children are not able to regulate their body temperature as well as adults, making them more vulnerable to injury from the extreme heat exposures that are possible on crumb rubber fields.
  • Children are commonly more susceptible to environmental chemicals, biologically, because their bodies are developing and the chemicals or toxic insults can offset the normal developmental trajectory.

What responsibilities do schools, communities and sports organizations have in making play surfaces safe for kids?

RW: The decision to purchase a particular type of field is not in the hands of parents, which we believe means that these organizations must take these issues into consideration.

At a minimum, these institutions need to address the concerns of parents and whether there are alternatives that can be mutually agreed upon as safe. There are such alternatives for fields – cork, for example. In addition, while grass fields can have pesticide applications, such applications are not mandatory and can be controlled or minimized with proper planning.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Consumer Product Safety Commission have teamed up to investigate the safety of crumb rubber surfaces on playgrounds and playing fields. What do you hope their investigation achieves?

RW: The research on off-gassing and exposure is very incomplete, and does not consider the full spectrum of chemicals that are found in crumb rubber, either individually or as a mixture.

We hope to see comprehensive studies that consider, at a minimum, exposure assessment under realistic playing conditions, all possible routes of exposure (inhalation, ingestion and absorption through skin) and potential health effects not only of individual chemicals, but also of mixtures of chemicals. Mixtures are the real life scenario.

What can concerned parents do to safeguard children who play on crumb rubber surfaces?

RW: Concerned parents should spring into action even before a crumb rubber field is installed. The most effective strategy is for parents to join with each other and also to form alliances with medical societies, nursing organizations, elected officials and anyone else in the community who is in position to raise vociferous opposition to the installation of these untested products.

Once a field has been installed, parents can minimize their children’s risk by always making their children shower as soon as they return home from playing on the fields in order to remove any crumb rubber.

A second step is to avoid playing on the field on very hot, sunny days when temperatures can reach dangerous levels.

A third step is to meticulously clean any cuts or abrasions caused by the field, because there have been outbreaks of [staph bacteria] skin infections associated with such cuts and scrapes.