If you played a youth field sport at any level you probably had at least some contact with artificial turf. Now there are serious concerns about long-term exposure to the playing surface.
Six former Philadelphia Phillies players, Tug McGraw, Darren Daulton, John Vukovich, John Oates, Ken Brett, and David West have died due to glioblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer that seems to indicate a link in their environment — with the turf inside of Veteran’s Stadium from 1971-2003 being a common factor. A ranging report from the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that the six players all died in their 40s or 50s, roughly three times the rate of the average adult population. Even more alarming was their mutual diagnosis of glioblastoma.
Studies are in their infancy, but there appears to be some evidence linking an increased risk of brain tumors to “Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” or PFAS. These chemicals, commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” have no organic means of breaking down. Past evidence has shown that PFAS can result in liver and kidney damage, as well as increased risk of thyroid disease — but these studies predominantly focused on the factories where these chemicals were manufactured, and workers were exposed. No necessarily how end-users could be harmed by PFAS.
PFAS are routinely used in the production of synthetic fields as a means to prevent water, heat, or staining damage.
Alarmingly, despite the Phillies players recording issues dating back 20 years, this is not an issue of the past. The Guardian notes that the federal government estimates that 12,000 artificial turf fields containing PFAS exist in the United States. With approximately 1,200 new fields being produced with these substances every year. There are concerns that PFAS are being absorbed through the skin, fumes are being inhaled, and the chemicals are being introduced to the human body through open wounds during sports competition.
Oncologists are quick to note that it’s too early to directly link PFAS to cancer, citing a need for further research. The concept of PFAS being harmful to anyone who comes in contact with them is a fairly recent development, but there are some extremely worrying results coming from studies.
One study in China found PFAS present in brain tumor tissue. Meanwhile in Italy, another study found PFAS in brain tissue, believes to be introduced through drinking water.
More research needs to be done, but this is a major concern to athletes, and the parents of young athletes who are competing on artificial turf. Additional studies will be required to look at the potential impact on drinking water as a result of runoff from these fields. There is evidence that PFAS can be effectively filtered out of water using active carbon or reverse osmosis filtration, however it’s unclear how many cities of municipalities use filtration that can effectively remove PFAS. A majority use a three-part filter system comprised of sand, gravel, and charcoal — though studies will need to be done to see whether these standard methods are sufficient to remove PFAS.
Some states are already moving to limit the production of new artificial fields. Municipalities in Connecticut, Massachusetts and California have already limited new construction over PFAS concerns, but a vast majority of cities and towns continue to produce these fields. It’s enough that athletes and parents should be asking questions of local government, and learn if their areas have any plans to phase out the use of the fields as more research is done.