Safety of Turf Fields Scrutinized

Ruby Zeidman '20

Sidwell athletics administrators say they have no plans to abandon artificial turf fields but are considering the use of new kinds of materials to address concerns about the safety of the crumb rubber now used in two of the school’s athletic fields.

Critics argue that fields using crumb rubber -- the most common type of “fill” material used in artificial playing surfaces and the type Sidwell uses in the field above the Wisconsin Avenue parking garage and the football field above the Athletic Center -- are often much harder than grass and dirt fields, raising the risk of injury to players.

Several D.C. schools are replacing their artificial turf fields “after a recent round of hardness testing resulted in out-of-compliance scores at more than a dozen schools and parks” according to DCist, a local news blog. DCist reported that “15 percent of football and soccer concussions are the result of a player’s head hitting a playing surface.”  

Crumb rubber infill, the tiny black crumbs in artificial turf, is composed of tire materials which some people think could cause cancer. Amy Griffin, a women’s soccer coach at the University of Washington, has assembled a list of 237 soccer players with cancer and thinks crumb rubber may be responsible for some cases of the disease. Science has not, however, established a link between exposure to crumb rubber playing fields and cancer.

Artificial turf fields also tend to get hotter than natural turf when exposed to sunlight. Sidwell Director of Athletics Keith Levinthal acknowledged that, on a sunny day, artificial turf reaches temperatures “about 10-15 degrees” warmer than grass.

Despite the concerns raised by opponents of artificial turf, Sidwell and many other schools still opt for artificial turf over grass playing fields. According to CNN, artificial fields are often chosen “due to their weather resistance, low cost, no need to be watered or fertilized, and year-round accessibility.”

Sidwell used crumb rubber for the football and Wisconsin Avenue fields because the fields are located on top of other structures. Sidwell Superintendent of Grounds William Patton said, “Had the school tried to use grass instead of artificial turf, the drainage would be an issue and the fields would not be structurally sound.”    

Sidwell coaches said they prefer to play on artificial turf instead of grass fields that may not be well maintained. Head Football Coach John Simon explained that the grass fields this season tended to “be very hard due to not much rain this season” and some were “more dirt than grass.”

Head Lacrosse Coach Samantha Ziegler said she does not believe that artificial turf heightens the risk of injury. In fact, she said, with appropriate footwear athletes can play on artificial turf “in the snow and rain, have it drain quickly, and not slip and slide.”  Coaches prefer artificial turf because it is weather resistant, making it more durable than grass.  

Sidwell Plant Manager Steve Sawyer said Sidwell takes care to make sure its artificial turf is safe and well maintained. “Our turf fields are professionally decompacted, cleaned, and groomed twice a year [and] tested annually for impact hardness,” he said.

Artificial turf fields are usually replaced every eight to fifteen years, and, while Sidwell is not planning to replace the 11-year-old crumb rubber fields with grass, Patton said the school may try natural infill materials such as coconut shells, cork, and EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer), so the fields will have the same durability as crumb rubber with less heat and potential for toxicity.

Levinthal said the Athletics Department “will continue to monitor the discussions and research on this topic.”

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