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'Tis the Season for Football Championships

Posted December 15, 2016 9:00 AM by BestInShow

‘Tis the season for football (American football, not soccer) championships of various ilks. ‘Tis also the day after the Supreme Court paved the way for the NFL to start compensating former players who suffered head injuries. I’d been thinking recently about the role sports fields play in causing, exacerbating, or preventing injuries. Several times this season I’ve seen very short sort of advertisements about a center at my alma mater that conducts research on different types of sports field coverings, natural and artificial. Their research brief is, in part, to evaluate how safe these surfaces are for players.

So I started to wonder if there is definitive proof that artificial turf causes more injuries than natural turf. As with most simple questions, the answers to this one aren’t definitive. It all depends. And some of the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific.

Early artificial turf

I remember the allure of artificial turf in the mid-1960s. I particularly remember how ridiculous I thought my aforesaid alma mater was to install Tartan Turf, a very early 3M entry into the fake grass market. In addition to complaints about the heat levels on the field, doctors and trainers started noticing ACL injuries, concussions, and sprained ankles. In 1992, John Powell from the University of Iowa completed the first systematic study of turf injuries and concluded that pro football players sustained more knee injuries on artificial turf.

Modern fake turf

At some point Alma Mater gave up on fake turf and planted grass on the football field. I have a souvenir chunk of the old stuff, and I sure wouldn’t have wanted to play on it. The next generations of artificial turf usually consist of a woven mat with tufts said to resemble grass, sometimes laid down on a pad, with ground-up tires packed into the interstices. The infill supposedly resembles dirt, which has a cushioning effect, and the heat retention issues have ameliorated. (Image: Schematic of modern artificial turf. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

How a playing field can hurt you

Poorly designed and/or maintained natural turf can hurt a player. Hard compacted soil is no more yielding than early artificial turf. And if you’ve got gopher holes, or the surface is uneven, well, I don’t have to spell out the consequences. It’s also possible, although probably not likely, that chemicals used on a field – pesticides and fertilizers – are inherently dangerous.

Artificial surfaces don’t have gopher holes and they’re not maintained with pesticides. And they drain, or should drain, better than grass. However, the fact that a player won’t slip on a wet patch also means that the improved traction can cause more injuries. The higher the coefficient of friction, the greater the potential for injuries like ACL tears. The friction inherent in a commercial turf’s components can potentially be fine-tuned through choice of materials. Players routinely change cleats depending on the surface.

Artificial turf can have unexpected and insidious downsides, though, even if it does not exacerbate orthopedic injuries. Research on infections, specifically stubborn staphylococcus skin infections, caused when skin abrasions scoop up bacteria that live in the turf, indicates that staph is no more prevalent on fake grass than on natural grass. Poor hygiene, close physical contact, inadequately laundered uniforms could all contribute to these infections.

The ground-up tire crumbs contain latex but at lower levels than latex gloves. However, the crumbs contain whatever ingredients the original tires contained, including zinc, sulfur, and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic chemicals. [] Since the crumbs come from used tires, anything the tires picked up from the road is lurking there as well. Cancer is one potential outcome of long-term exposure, one that’s garnered a lot of publicity in the last couple of years. The research results I’ve read thus far don’t confirm the presence of dangerous levels of chemicals, but it’s still the early days – a situation that bears watching. (Image: Natural grass football field. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

Back to Alma Mater

Recently a group of turf researchers in Alma Mater’s Institute of Agriculture proposed a facility where they can study the impact of both artificial and natural turf on health, safety, and performance. [] Will this impressive facility be built? No idea. Several other universities, notably Penn State, have ongoing turf research programs. Until we see more research, particularly on the potential effects of chemical exposure, I don’t envy parents who have to decide whether to let their kids play on fake turf.



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