As with anything “plastic”, synthetic, and artificial, there are bound to be health concerns of chemicals-are-causing-cancer type. Also, this kind of topic makes great headlines. But on a serious note, take a look around you. Your child’s favorite playground and that new dog park you visit every day are covered in a layer of artificial grass- are there grounds for concern?
What the studies are saying
The truth is that the studies are not really saying much. For years, scientists have kept a suspicious eye on fake lawns precisely because of the public’s outcry about health concerns.
Those highly provoking posts that are becoming the voice of reason lack one very important thing and that is data. Hard facts and evidence are missing. What studies do show however is that artificial lawns, fields, and spaces pose little to no risk at all when it comes to human health. Sure, certain infills (like crumb rubber) can cause extreme heating, but despite the validity of this concern, overheating is nowhere near the perimeters of cancer.
Something that must be taken into account, however, is that no in-depth, comparative study has been done to test for differences between brands among different chemicals used for each formula. These gaps are very important because they generate worry and can be used to create unwarranted fear.
But what about lead levels?
While studies show that artificial grass is generally safe, the issue of lead levels are particularly sensationalized by the media and there are valid grounds- it’s just not as concrete (and not nearly as dramatic) as those screaming headlines seem to suggest.
Artificial grass, especially turf installed for athletic purposes is inlaid with rubber crumbs. This practice is an old one and becoming replaced because of the heating concerns we talked about earlier. These rubber crumbs also have other concerning features, such as the fact that they are made from old tires that have been recycled. It is both the process of turning tire rubber into infill crumbs and the makeup of rubber in itself that brings up the issue of chemical content. Rubber infill does contain different chemical toxins like lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Now, here’s why you shouldn’t be concerned. There are alternatives to rubber crumbs, but even if you were to use the stuff, studies show that even if your body does take in some chemicals or lead, the quantities are so little that they equate whatever you’d find in food or simply walking around your natural environment on a daily basis.
Something else to note is that while certain turfs have tested high for lead content, these were old turfs more similar in formulation to the original astroturf and/or turfs installed with a rubber crumb infill. As we pointed out, if it is concerning to you, rubber crumb can be replaced with a number of different alternatives.
Is there truth to the cancer claims?
No scientific study has resulted in evidence that artificial grass causes cancer. Anything you read linking cancer and artificial turf was a unfounded and little more than a subjective suggestion.
There have been a couple of viral claims stating that soccer players are developing leukemia, lymphomas and other types of cancer from the synthetic turfs they frequent, but these claims have zero scientific backing and have since been confirmed to be hoaxes.
Reports on this issue also tend to inject fear into those little gaps in studies and selectively inflate other pieces of evidence. For example, reporters and fear-induced parents will blog about high levels of lead, but not clarify that certain high-lead samples were collected from turfs that have been painted on – something completely unrelated to the turf itself.
Any synthetic creation that’s going to see a lot of interaction with human use is going to be an item of scrutiny. Artificial grass has been studied far more than other potential toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis and the evidence does not give us any reason to fear for our health when we decide to replace our lawns with turf.
The Synthetic Turf Council also undertakes frequent testing of artificial grass and publishes its findings for public access.
Something else to consider is that while people freak out over the potential risks involved with artificial turf and scream cancer at the first headline to make tentative claims, the practices involved in treating natural lawns goes completely unnoticed. That’s right, natural grass, especially if used in recreational and public settings, is often treated with chemical pesticides. As far as studies show (and there isn’t a comparative study, unfortunately), the findings for toxicity from natural grass is even less conclusive than health risks related to artificial turf.