Turf Wars: A Fight Over Fake Grass

State legislators are used to political turf wars. Now, debates in a handful of states really are about turf, pitting those who back the artificial variety against supporters of natural grass for playgrounds and athletic fields.

Bills in Minnesota, New Jersey and New York would bar the installation of additional artificial turf until those states complete health and environmental studies on the ground-up tires used for the increasingly popular surfaces. Bills in California and Connecticut call for studies to determine the health and environmental effects of synthetic turf. A proposal in New York City would rip out all the existing artificial fields as well as ban new ones.

The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission gave a boost to those concerned with safety on April 16 when it announced approval of a study on lead levels released from artificial grass. The study is in response to a request from New Jersey state health regulators who closed fields at The College of New Jersey in Ewing and Frank Sinatra Park in Hoboken on April 14 after samples of synthetic turf showed high levels of lead, a known neurotoxin.

Artificial playing fields have been in use since the 1960s, but began to take off two decades later when improved materials made the surfaces softer and more like real grass. The industry has grown about 20% annually since 2001, and the number of new fields doubled from about 400 to 800 between 2003 and 2005, according to the Synthetic Turf Council, a trade group of manufacturers and sellers. Most of the synthetic turf varieties now being used use crumb-rubber from waste tires, sometimes mixed with sand.

While artificial turf can cost twice as much to install as traditional sod, synthetic surfaces require no water, fertilizers or mowing during their average 10-year lifespan. In addition, synthetic playing surfaces hold up better under frequent use and help reduce injuries by providing better traction for athletes, according to industry groups.

But grassroots opponents across the country charge that synthetic turf may cause more environmental damage than real grass, and they raise concerns that children are being exposed to harmful chemicals.

Both supporters and opponents of the artificial surface cite scientific studies to back up their differing claims, but both sides agree that more research is needed.

Lawmakers have not yet been swayed by the activists' concerns as the industry ramps up its lobbying against the measures; none of the bills to ban fake turf has been moved out of committee.

Jonathan Levy, a lobbyist for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc., said about 51 million tires annually are used to make crumb rubber for a variety of products including a mulch substitute and an ingredient in asphalt, as well as the synthetic turf. "In the larger environmental picture, if there is nowhere for these tires to go, what do we do with them?" he asked.

Read the full report Turf Wars: A Fight Over Fake Grass on Stateline.org's Web site.

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