Safety of artificial turf needs further study

The feel and smell of natural turf has been a big part of the pleasure derived from outdoor sports. Increasingly over the past 50 years, that aspect of sports participation has been replaced with various artificial materials. Today, the safety of those materials has come into question.

The original Astroturf field consisted of nylon strands woven into a carpet and was designed for an indoor stadium like the Houston Astrodome. A subsequent version was made up of a tighter weave and more compact surface. These forms resulted in injuries from impact with a firm surface and friction burns.

This led to the current generation of artificial turf fields consisting of longer, softer synthetic strands filled with granulated recycled rubber. These fields now provide a softer surface with improved traction for cleated footwear.

Despite these innovations, an increase in the frequency of lower extremity injuries can be related to the change from natural to artificial surface. Among these injuries are turf toe, a painful condition that results from injury to the ligaments supporting the great toe. An increase in anterior cruciate ligament knee injuries is also believed to be related to the change in playing surface.

“The evidence suggests that synthetic turf increases the chance for injury, and at best the more natural the surface the less increase in injury — especially for the football player,” reports Dr. Stephanie Mazerolle, Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Connecticut. “I think when considering playing surface, natural surfaces (i.e. grass) may offer a more favorable environment when it comes to the safety of the student-athlete.”

More recently, ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” and others have called for further investigation into anecdotal reports of increased cases of cancer in athletes who have high exposure to the so-called “crumb rubber” fields. Soccer goalies are particularly vulnerable given their exposure to the rubber particles especially when playing indoors. The principal forms of reported cancers are blood related such as leukemia and lymphoma.

Despite the economic advantages of artificial turf, more investigation regarding safety must be carried out.  

Dr. Alessi is a neurologist in Norwich and serves as an on-air contributor for ESPN. He is director of UConn NeuroSport and can be reached at

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