Grass vs. Turf Debate Fueled By Environmental and Health Concerns


Having a perfectly green lawn is something many homeowners strive for each spring. The desire for a swath of emerald across the entire yard is so great some people are willing to go beyond grass to get it. Enter artificial turf.

Many people will remember artificial turf from episodes of the Brady Bunch. The set of the family’s home famously featured an obviously artificial AstroTurf lawn. But that was the 1970s when “chemgrass” was just a few years old. Today, manufacturers use modern day technology and new materials to create turf that resembles the real thing.

The use of turf has sparked a debate across the country that shows no sign of subsiding. Some argue that it’s an environmentally friendly alternative while others question that notion and the safety of turf.

The Effort to Make Grass More Environmentally Friendly

As carbon dioxide emissions increase by up to 92% in some countries and drought grips states throughout the U.S., the debate over grass versus turf has largely centered on environmental factors. In some climates, grass can be extremely difficult to grow, especially if the wrong variety is used. This makes growing grass more resource intensive and can increase the use of chemical pesticides.

There’s also no getting around the water needed to keep a grass lawn healthy. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that the average household uses 48 gallons of water a day on lawns and gardens. Landscape irrigation adds up to roughly 9 billion gallons of water daily.

However, science is stepping in to solve some of these issues. In an effort to make lawns hardier and easier to maintain, common varieties like Kentucky bluegrass are now being combined with complimentary species. The EPA has also initiated a number of programs to encourage the use of efficient irrigation systems that improve water conversation. By and large, grass is still the most popular choice, and advances in agriculture technology are helping make it a more viable option.

Turf Comes With Environmental Benefits and Drawbacks

The Synthetic Turf Council notes that there are currently 12,000+ synthetic turf sports fields in the U.S. One of the major appeals for turf is the low maintenance. Unlike grass, it doesn’t need to be fertilized, mowed or watered.

However, many environmentalists believe the water conservation doesn’t outweigh the impact of artificial turf. While grass helps contribute to clean air, creating turf does the exact opposite. The production of artificial turf has been associated with greenhouse gas emissions due to the use of petro chemicals to create the synthetic grass blades. The product then has to be packaged and shipped, which increases the overall eco-footprint. The waste created by the chemical manufacturing process and the end of the product’s life cycle are also hotly debated as environmental drawbacks.

Cancer Concerns Connected to Artificial Turf

Turf is far from natural. Synthetic materials are used to replicate grass blades and the turf is imbedded with black beads called rubber crumbs that are supposed to mimic soil. The rubber crumbs are made from old tires. Proponents hail this as an eco-friendly feature, but opponents say there’s a much bigger concern.

The old tires used for the rubber crumbs could potentially contain carcinogens, benzene, carbon black and other harmful substances. Exposure to these types of chemicals can pose health risks, including cancer. This concern has been highlighted by an increase in soccer goalies who are being diagnosed with blood cancers.

The trend was identified several years ago, and immediately a connection was made between cancer rates and artificial turf since goalies have the most direct contact with the ground. The observation lead to a University of Washington School of Public Health study that found the soccer players didn’t necessarily have an elevated risk for cancer, but their research did not explore the causes of their cancer. More research is being conducted to directly assess the safety of rubber crumbs and artificial turf as a whole.

Turf May Be Harder on the Body

Nowhere has the turf versus grass debate been greater than in Major League Soccer (MLS). For years, star players, team owners and experts have grappled over which surface is best for soccer fields. Ultimately, the biggest factors are performance and safety. The real risk with turf is that the products aren’t created equally.

While researchers note they are still gathering information to determine if turf increases injury risk, there is evidence to note that it can affect recovery. Many athletes have noted that playing on turf seems to be harder on the body and leads to a longer recovery period. Dr. Michael Freitas and other orthopedic specialists believe this is due to turf providing less cushion than grass. There’s also less give with turf compared to grass, which may increase the stress on your muscles and joints duing high intensity use. Athletes wearing cleats or spiked shoes will feel this even more because they can dig into turf which then adds more stress to your lower body when changing direction quickly.

At the end of this debate most people find themselves right where they started, either sticking to their grass seed or their turf burn, however the debate will only progress as turf fields age, are replaced, and the long term benefits studied. If turf can prove that its parts are not cancer causing agents or there is a way to create a safer and more eco-friendly turf (sans rubber additives) then more and more fields may become artificial especially in climates where grass is harder to maintain. However, not much beats the smell of fresh cut grass so you can be sure that your neighbors lawn or your local public park will remain natural grass for the forseeable future.

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