Are turf fields safe?

Jun. 23, 2013 @ 10:57 AM

With the resurgence of artificial playing surfaces on football and soccer fields across the country, it's obvious that today's turf is nothing like the faux fields of the 1970s and ’80s that were regularly seen as a contributing factor in the rise of knee injuries.

Medical professionals almost universally view today's synthetic fields as safer than the carpet most locals first associated with the Astrodome in Houston or the rug at Neyland Stadium from 1968-1993.

How safe is a modern artificial playing surface?

In a world where corporate interests conduct studies geared to produce results favorable for their cause, it's hard to say.

The state of New York studied a wide variety of these reports for its Department of Health fact sheet.

"Although the ability of the studies to detect differences in the injury rates was limited by the small number of injuries reported, the studies concluded that there were no major differences in overall injury rates between natural and infilled synthetic turf," the sheet (http://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/outdoors/synthetic_turf/crumb-rubber_infilled/fact_sheet.htm) reads. "Although each study found some differences in specific injury types, there was no consistent pattern across the studies."

For every argument that finds lower-body injuries (knees, ankles) occur at a higher rate on turf, another lauds the safety afforded by players not battling muddy, rutty natural fields — a common sight at smaller high schools in Tennessee.

Dobyns-Bennett High football coach Graham Clark, who's team has played six seasons on artificial turf, said he's seen no evidence of more injuries on his team's field. In fact, Clark believes concussions — possibly the most scary football-related injuries — happen less on the turf than on natural grass. 

He said the move to the turf was the best football-related decision his school had ever made.

Perhaps the greatest concern most have about the artificial-turf surfaces is their inability to effectively disperse heat, which is of interest in the summers of Tennessee.

"Synthetic turf fields absorb heat, resulting in surface temperatures that are much higher than the temperatures of the surrounding air," the New York Department of Health says. "The surface temperatures reported on synthetic turf fields can get high enough to reach levels of discomfort and may contribute to heat stress among users of the fields. Because of the potential for high temperatures on infilled synthetic turf fields, it is important that people who play or work on the fields be provided with adequate warnings regarding the potential for heat stress.

"People should also be advised to remain hydrated and to seek relief from the heat in shaded areas," the report continues. "The potential for and frequency of high surface temperatures warrant consideration when making decisions about installing and using a synthetic turf field."

While schools are out during summer and no team sports play regularly-scheduled contests in June and July, teams do practice, work out and participate in camps during the year's hottest months. And it often is nhot for those late August/early September games.

It's likely that natural surfaces of some kind would still be needed for field time in these months unless a sufficient plan is in place to help negate the increased surface temperature of the turf.