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Photo Credit: Griffin Limerick

Artificial turf fields may seem desirable for a faster sports game and for easier and cheaper upkeep, but critics argue that the increased chemical exposure, pollution and injuries they create are often overlooked. 

Nearly seven years ago, Northwestern High School athletes started playing on a turf football field. More recently, in 2023, the new Hyattsville Middle School had a synthetic soccer field installed. Many community members have voiced their continuing concerns about artificial turf on local listservs.

“I live across the street from the new Middle School field and on hot summer days, the smell of hot rubber was sometimes overwhelming and forced me to close windows and doors when I didn’t want to,” noted a Hyattsville resident on the HOPE (Hyattsville Organization for a Positive Environment) listserv. 

. Keystone Sports Construction holds a maintenance contract with nine public high schools in Prince George’s County, including Northwestern High School. According to Keystone Mid Atlantic Sales Manager Tim Fitzgerald, natural grass fields require more costly maintenance and are less durable than artificial turf fields; grass fields need to be cut, watered and fertilized. He added that artificial turf fields save schools money because they are never out of commission during bad weather. 

Additionally, artificial turf provides an outlet to recycle old tires with the crumb rubber infill below the green carpet. According to a 2008 Environmental Health Perspectives article, one-twelfth of the 300 million tires withdrawn from use each year are recycled this way; the average soccer field holds around 4 to 15 pounds of recycled infill per square foot. When Keystone removes turf fields, Fitzgerald said, 90% of the crumb rubber infill is removed and recycled, while the old carpet is usually donated to Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals shelters. 

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Photo Credit: Griffin Limerick

However, some residents have expressed concerns about the potential chemical exposure from such recycled crumb rubber infill. “If tires can’t go into landfills because they release toxic chemicals, why are we using them in schools?” Hyattsville resident Nicola Wood asked in an email. “I guess it solves a problem of where to put all those used tires, and it makes money for some companies. But it is making us sick.”

Because many of these fields have no drainage to capture runoff, a lot of the debris can end up in waterways. Artificial turf fibers can make up 15% of the mesoplastics and macroplastics contributing to plastic pollution in waterways, according to a 2023 Environmental Pollution study.

Then there is the issue of what happens with artificial fields when they’ve worn out. Keystone Sports notes that the usual lifespan of a synthetic turf field is between eight to 10 years. A synthetic turf plastic carpet contains around 40,000 pounds of plastic carpeting and 40,000 pounds of infill, according to the Sierra Club, some of which will eventually end up in landfills. 

Playing on turf may also result in more injuries than playing on grass fields. A 2018 American Journal of Sports Medicine study found that some types of injuries are 16% more likely to occur from playing on artificial turf compared to on grass. After New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ achilles ruptured, causing a 2023 season-ending injury, the National Football League Players Association called for natural grass in all stadiums, according to ESPN

During a Maryland Board of Public Works meeting this past October, Maryland Comptroller Brooke Lierman spoke out against artificial turf. “Synthetic turf fields have a large carbon footprint, and their toxic substances end up as ‘forever waste,’” she said. “These plastic carpets emit greenhouse gases like ethylene and methane continuously throughout their lifespan, and that doesn’t count the phenomenal amount of greenhouse gases that go into the production of the products in the fields in the first place.”

Recently a bill for custody on artificial turf passed the Maryland House of Delegates and is on its way to the state senate. This bill would require the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to track the chain of custody of all synthetic sports and playing fields installed in the state. This has a very low ticket cost for MDE, is an environmentally sensible bill, and protects water quality, according to Diana Conway, founder of Safe and Healthy Playing Fields. 

The bill’s fiscal note calculates that it would cost the MDE approximately $59.000 in fiscal year 2025. 

“Artificial turf is not the win-win solution that many prior park directors believed it would be,” Lierman said. “Its costs are being borne now by those playing on these fields and being injured or suffering staph infections, and will be borne by future governments who have to pay the incredible cost of disposing of the fields before replacement.”


Lillian Howard is an undergraduate journalism major at the University of Maryland.