Artificial turf: bad for your health?

When the new soccer fields open at the East Washington park next month, Petaluma will join the legions of municipalities that have converted once grassy swaths of land into artificial surfaces. The city will also join the growing debate over the safety of artificial turf.

The park on East Washington Street will feature three artificial turf fields, and Petaluma High School and Casa Grande High School will unveil similar fields in the months ahead.

Opponents of these types of fields have expressed four main concerns: bacterial infection, heat conduction, increased physical injury and health concerns related to the crumb rubber infill.

Last month, West Sonoma Union High School District came under fire for a decision to use crumb rubber infill on fields at Analy and El Molino high schools amid health concerns related to possible carcinogens in the crumbs. The district board decided to reconsider using other infill materials such as organic cork or coconut.

Casa Grande High School is familiar with the alleged dangers of artificial turf, as sophomore Frank Gawronski suffered through months of recovery from a staph infection after scraping his elbow on the artificial turf at a football camp at UC Berkeley last summer.

The discussion of Gawronski’s injury centered on the hygienic conditions that are conducive to artificial surfaces. Dr. Ty Affleck of Santa Rosa Sports and Family Medicine said there is a potential for the spread of bacteria through artificial surfaces, although it is more commonly spread in the locker room. Affleck said that the surface should be treated similar to any wrestling mat and routinely bleached or wiped down with any antimicrobial scrub.

Sue Keller, co-athletic director of St. Vincent DePaul High School, said the school’s multi-use synthetic turf field which opened five years ago, is routinely maintained to combat bacterial infections. Athletic underwear designed to prevent rug burns can add protection, she said. Medical attention from bacterial infections have not been a concern for the school, she said.

Since the field opened, Keller said the biggest concern athletes face are high surface temperatures on the field in warmer months.

Most artificial surfaces are filled with crumbs from recycled tires. Unlike grass that can regulate temperature, rubber crumbs will absorb heat. Affleck said friction from athlete movement has the potential to raise field temperatures.

The surface temperature of natural grass will range from 75 to 95 degrees, rarely reaching 100 degrees. Artificial surfaces will routinely exceed 100 degrees, and range from 35 to 50 degrees hotter than grass, according to a 2011 study by Penn State’s Center for Sports Surface Research.

Watering an artificial field has proven to lower temperatures, but only momentarily, according to the study. Affleck said this procedure may ultimately lead to a rise in humidity and further complicate matters.

Affleck said that artificial turf does not necessarily lead to more injuries, but rather a different type of injury. Most common are injuries related to the shoes an athlete wears, he said.

“It’s those kids you see with tall cleats on the field that are most susceptible to injury,” he said.

Tall cleats are designed for grass fields, as surface type allows for more impact pressure, or “give,” he said. Shorter cleats should be used on artificial surfaces that don’t give as much. A tear of the anterior cruciate ligament is common among athletes who wear improper shoes.

“As a player I always liked grass more, but especially in our area, grass does not seem to grow very well or maintain properly,” said Tim Maycock, director of coaching for Petaluma United Soccer Club. “In that regard turf is better, but if you have a good grass field it will always be better than turf in my opinion.”

Maycock added that players are not taught to play or run differently on artificial turf fields.

Since St. Vincent lacked the space for multiple facilities, maintenance of a grass field became a frequent obstacle said Keller. Fall sports would often deteriorate playing surfaces for athletics in the spring, a concern that was addressed by adding an artificial field.

“We can practice and play on it without giving it a rest,” said Keller. “The whole maintenance issue became a mess with a grass field. The positives far outweighed the negatives.”

(Contact Joshua Gutierrez at

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