Is Fake Turf Safe For Women’s World Cup Soccer Players and Other Living Things?

The Women's World Cup is being played exclusively on artificial turf. Some believe the synthetic fields are bad for the sport and player health.

by Neil deMause
Jun 19 2015, 12:10pm

Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

If anything has stood out about the Women's World Cup so far—aside from dramatic upsets by underdogs, which most U.S. sports fans have probably missed since they involve teams like Colombia—it has been star American striker Abby Wambach failing to score on one of her trademark headers.

Well, that and Wambach blaming her off-the-noggin dry streak on the fact that this year's Cup is being played entirely on artificial turf.

"I think I score if we're on grass," Wambach said following last week's 0-0 tie with rival Sweden. She gave two reasons: one, balls bounce higher and more consistently on turf than on grass, making it easier for goalkeepers to make saves; two, Wambach would be more "carefree" about throwing around her body on a less abrasive grass pitch, with "no second-guessing."

Wambach's turf antipathy is nothing new. She previously joined other players from multiple nations in filing a gender-discrimination lawsuit in an Ontario human rights court against FIFA over its decision to allow Canada to hold the tournament on turf. And while the legal challenge ultimately was withdrawn when it became clear that FIFA wasn't going to budge, the start of the actual World Cup has given players an additional platform to gripe about the fake grass.

READ MORE: How FIFA Killed The Women's World Cup Lawsuit

There are many possible reactions to such complaints, most of them reasonable enough, depending on how you see women's soccer: Don't they typically lay down trays of sod when the men play? Aren't there plenty of MLS teams that play on turf? Don't the men hate the fake stuff, too? Should we really be listening to grievances from players in a sport where throwing yourself on the ground and writhing in pretend agony is considered a valuable skill?

All of this makes for great sports debate grist, at least as one of those off-the-field controversies—think Brazil's World Cup debt protests or anti-gay laws in Russia—that tends to fade from attention once there's actual games to watch on TV. Still, there's a serious question we should be asking: Is artificial grass bad for soccer, and also for soccer players?

"Good job on the turf fields, FIFA! Good effort!" --Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The case against fake turf—which almost always means FieldTurf or one of its competitors—is multifaceted. Artificial turf first entered the pro sports world in 1966, after the Houston Colt 45's baseball team moved from their temporary outdoor ballpark to the world's first indoor stadium, the Astrodome. Initially, the dome featured natural grass and translucent panels in the roof to let in light; unfortunately, those same panels made it impossible for outfielders to see flyballs, and a couple dozen E-8's later, about half the roof was painted over. The grass, predictably, died. The Astros tried painting it green, turned to the chemical giant Monsanto, which installed a field of its new patented ChemGrass, renaming it AstroTurf.

An industry was born.

AstroTurf was a mainstay of both indoor and outdoor sports fields in the 1970s and 1980s, but started to fall out of favor in the 1990s as fans griped about its unearthly-green color, and players complained about its rug-on-concrete composition, which was hell on knees and other body parts. Enter today's FieldTurf, which offers plastic grass atop a spongy base made of reclaimed rubber tires shredded up like crumb cake, providing more cushioning and a slightly more realistic look. The new turf was rapidly readopted, particularly by pro football leagues—13 out of 32 NFL stadiums now feature artificial surfaces, and the Canadian Football League ripped up its last grass field five years ago—and by cities across North America that were sold on FieldTurf and its next-generation competitors as an easy way to keep youth soccer fields from turning into dust bowls via the pounding of little cleats.

With the new turf, however, came new issues. For pro soccer players, the main concerns are: (a) high-bouncing turf changing the gameplay of a sport that can depend on precision passing; (b) increased injury risk. The former is undeniably true to anyone who's watched these World Cup games—the Canadian stadiums' artificial pitches may not reach the pinball bounce levels seen at the old Minneapolis Metrodome, but passing sometimes has been less than crisp.

That's annoying—just ask Tom Hanks!—and it raises the legitimate question of why Women's World Cup players have to put up with it when their male counterparts don't. On the other hand, MLS players have to deal with fake turf on occasion, too. (Or not deal with it, in Thierry Henry's case). Moreover, soccer is a sport where pitch conditions aren't uniform, with the size of the field itself varying by as much as 30 feet. Nobody gripes that the Green Monster makes baseball at Fenway a different sport altogether.

READ MORE: Dear Pubs Of England: Is Anybody Showing The Women's World Cup?

Injury risk is a bigger problem, one that modern turf doesn't seem to have solved as much as its makers had promised. American striker Sydney LeRoux's tweet of a photo of her bloody shins post-turf has gotten plenty of play of late, and indeed plastic blades of grass tend to take a heavier toll in scrapes and bruises. But the larger concerns over turf safety, say some public health scientists, go deeper.

When the latest generation of artificial turf made from recycled tire crumbs was introduced around the turn of the century, it became apparent that the fake stuff got hotter than real grass—a lot hotter. A Penn State study found that temperatures on synthetic turf were 35 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than on grass fields, with one particularly sunny day in Utah driving the surface temperature to a scorching 200 degrees. (FieldTurf's manufacturer says that air temperatures return to normal levels once you get five feet off the ground, but that doesn't do much for players' legs and feet.) At Canada's opening match against China in Edmonton, the air temperature was 75 degrees Fahrenheit, while the turf itself measured a toasty 120. This is not only tough on players' feet, but causes extra fatigue, another reason why these World Cup games may start to drag as they approach the end of regulation time.

The bigger concern, meanwhile, involves the potential effects of modern turf on long-term athlete health—an area where data is currently incomplete, but nonetheless worrisome. As far back as 2007, the state of Texas noted that high school football players, who often play on artificial surfaces, were contracting potentially life-threatening, antibiotic-resistant staph infections at a rate 16 times the national average. Why? No one knows for sure. Turf fields don't harbor additional germs; another Penn State study found that staph bacteria are just as prevalent on grass fields. However, LeRoux-style "rug burn" could be creating more cuts that allow infections to penetrate the skin.

(It's also possible that staph-resistant infections thrive in contact sports just because football locker rooms are unbelievably filthy, and players are all continually taking antibiotics that help breed superbugs.)

Finally, there's the very material that was supposed to make the new turf both safer more environmentally-friendly: the 40,000 or so used rubber tires that are ground up to make each new field. When FieldTurf was invented, this was seen as a massive win-win, allowing for softer, more forgiving playing surfaces while making use of acres of old tires that were piling up at the same time states were starting to ban them from being disposed of in landfills.

Of course, the reason for the landfill bans is that rubber tires contain all kinds of chemical gunk, much of it carcinogenic—something that immediately alarmed a handful of researchers, including Connecticut state toxicologist David Brown. "He said, oh my god, we really have to look into this—I know what's in tires," says Nancy Alderman, president of the nonprofit public health group Environmental and Human Health. Moreover, those rubber crumbs end up in players' hair, mouths and shoes, as any soccer mom or dad can tell you following post-match cleanup.

Where artificial fields come from. --Photo by Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

While it's extraordinarily hard to prove links between clusters of cancer cases and environmental causes—as Alderman notes, it took 40 years to definitively prove a link between lung cancer and smoking—University of Washington assistant coach Amy Griffin has identified what she believes may be an outbreak of cancer diagnoses among goalkeepers nationwide. This is suspicious for a couple of reasons, says Alderman. First off, because keepers spend far more time diving for balls in both games and practice, "they're in the stuff all the time, so they are actually more exposed than the other players." Secondly, the diagnoses that Griffin has identified are mostly cancers of the blood—lymphomas and the leukemias—leading her to suspect a common cause. "Whenever you see a preponderance of one kind of cancer, that's when you worry," says Alderman.

As fake turf fields continue to proliferate at both the professional and youth levels, government oversight agencies have mostly thrown up their hands at trying to regulate them—the Consumer Product Safety Commission, for example, recently backed off its Bush-era claim that turf fields are safe, but also says that there hasn't been sufficient research to prove any danger, and that it doesn't have enough money to study the issue. Perhaps the larger problem is that the fake turf industry has simply grown too big to fail, or even to investigate, for fear of greater repercussions if plastic turf turns out to be hazardous. And maybe that's why FIFA put the Women's World Cup on turf in the first place, and then declined to bring in trays of grass to lay over Canadian fields, even though one lawn care company offered to cover the entire estimated $3 million cost of temporarily converting all six World Cup stadiums. Canada is a lucrative market for women's soccer. It has many stadiums with turf fields. FIFA's own guidelines say that turf, at least certain turf, is acceptable for international play. A last-minute change to grass would have implied that artificial turf is inferior, and we couldn't have that, could we?

Wambach's complaints, then, are ultimately about more than lost goals, just as the controversy over turf is about more than this particular tournament, or whether FIFA cares more about men than women when money is on the line. (Spoiler alert: FIFA doesn't care about anything more than money). As the Women's World Cup continues, keep one question in mind: if the best female soccer players on the planet shouldn't be playing on turf, should anyone?

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