The safety of grass and turf fields

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Schools across the nation are replacing grass football and soccer fields with artificial turf. Recent events and news reports now have parents questioning whether these fields are safe for our kids.

The debate over turf versus grass fields intensified this summer. Matches of the Women’s World Cup in Canada were played on turf despite criticism from many of the players. On Saturday, the U.S. Women’s National Team refused to play a match in Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium. According to an article written by the team for The Players’ Tribune, the artificial turf was old and pulling out of the ground. Rocks were embedded in the turf throughout the field. The U.S. Soccer Federation later declared the field to be unplayable.

The cancellation came one day after USWNT midfielder Megan Rapinoe tore the ACL in her right knee on a grass training field. According to the team, the pitch was in bad condition, and sewer plates were lying along the sidelines.

In the case of the USWNT, the debate centers around fairness. The women’s team will play eight of its 10 Victory tour games on turf, while the men’s team reportedly hasn’t played on turf at all this year. Clearly buckling, aging turf and poorly maintained grass with hazards along the perimeter are not safe for the players.

We need to determine the safest fields, not just for the pros and national teams, but for kids who play football and soccer too. More schools install these latest generation artificial turf fields every year.

These surfaces, like FieldTurf, have crumb rubber bases with synthetic blades of grass woven into them. They appeal to schools located in areas with inconsistent weather or shrinking budgets that make maintaining the condition of the grass difficult.

On one hand, Rapinoe’s injury makes one of the primary arguments for turf. Grass fields in poor condition could cause serious knee injuries as players step into holes with little grass. The turf provides a more consistent playing surface, especially at the end of a season when grass fields are worn out. Some studies, although not all, actually show a higher rate of ACL tears on these newer artificial turf fields.

Perhaps the scarier risk, though, could be reports linking artificial turf to cancer in soccer players. Amy Griffin, the associate women’s soccer coach at the University of Washington, has kept a list of soccer players who developed cancer after years of playing on artificial turf. After a 2014 NBC News report on the possible link, Griffin heard from players across the country worried about the potential harmful chemicals that could be released from the rubber crumbs.

According to a follow-up story by NBC News this fall, Griffin’s list has grown to 63 former soccer players with cancer, mostly goalkeepers. 15 players have died. At this point, however, no scientific data has conclusively shown a link between artificial turf fields and cancer. According to the NBC report, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has backed down from a prior endorsement of artificial turf due to insufficient research.

If athletes want to play on grass fields, schools and teams must keep them in top shape. Given the cost to maintain grass, especially in cold, rainy areas, many high schools will continue to choose artificial turf instead. We must then learn as soon as possible if these newer turf surfaces present a health risk — not just of blowing out your knee — but taking your life.

Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon in Charleston. For more sports medicine information, please go to Dr. Geier’s website at drdavidgeier.com.