High Temps On Turf Fields Spark Safety Concerns Schools and coaches love artificial turf because it's easy to maintain, and the field stays in great shape all year. But the air around synthetic turf can reach 160 degrees on a 90-degree day. New York City has canceled contracts for turf that contains recycled tires, because of concerns that the rubber adds to the heat-absorbing effect.

High Temps On Turf Fields Spark Safety Concerns

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. It is Thursday morning, which is when we talk about your health. And in a moment we'll hear about sunburn remedies. We begin with synthetic turf, which is taking some heat - as we're about to hear. Lots of coaches love the benefits of artificial fields because there's no practice time lost to muddy conditions and the fields are easy to maintain. But as synthetic turf becomes more popular, there's a controversy. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: A few years ago, a professor at Columbia University named Stuart Gaffin began a research project to study how urban trees in the Bronx helped cool down neighborhoods. To help figure this out he analyzed thermal images generated from NASA's satellite maps. When Gaffin noticed a bunch of hotspots on the map he assumed they may be rooftops, but he wanted to know for certain.

Professor STUART GAFFIN (Columbia University): And so we picked out, you know, five, six really hot locations in the Bronx and went to visit them, and two of them turned out to be turf fields. And in retrospect I should have realized it, because they're a perfect absorbing system.

AUBREY: To see just how hot the synthetic fields can get, we visited a park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with Jeffrey Croft.

Mr. JEFFREY CROFT (New York City Park Advocates): We're going down the steps at 103rd street and Riverside Drive, and we're going into Riverside Park.

AUBREY: Croft runs a nonprofit group called New York City Park Advocates. He's been taking temperature readings in parks around the city since April. With a thermometer in hand, Croft walks to the side of one of the turf fields where a bunch of kids are playing sports as part of a summer camp. In the shade it's 86 degrees, but out in the center of the soccer field the sun is directly overhead.

Mr. CROFT: For these kids right now, on this surface is - holy cow, wow, that's way higher than I thought this was going to be. This is 160.6.

AUBREY: As the coaches call a water break - which they do a lot - a group of eight and nine-year-olds, including Michael Lucanack(ph), Max Rona(ph), and Billy Herwitz(ph), stand dripping in sweat.

Unidentified Boy #1: I just got water from the water fountain. It's freezing cold water. It's hot, very hot.

AUBREY: So is it hard to keep playing when it's this hot?

Unidentified Boy #1: Yes.

Unidentified Boy #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Boy #1: You totally - if you were playing like this you'd probably need a water break like the whole time.

Unidentified Boy #2: It's just like killing you, the sun.

AUBREY: Part of what's trapping the heat are bits of ground up recycled tires used by the manufacturers to cushion the turf. When you bounce a ball on the turf, as Jeffrey Croft does, you see how the black rubber granules end up all over a player's clothes and shoes.

Mr. CROFT: So it's getting all over my leg.

AUBREY: You've got some on your hands.

Mr. CROFT: And I've got some on my hands.

AUBREY: The kids say the bits of rubber are really annoying.

Unidentified Boy #3: It's mostly in my hair.

Unidentified Boy #4: And then when it gets your shoes it hurts.

AUBREY: Rick Doyle is president of the Synthetic Turf Council, which represents manufacturers. He explains the recycled rubber is a cost-effective way of making the surfaces more resilient. When I asked him about the 160-degree temperature on the soccer field, he told me manufacturers are aware of the heat issue.

Mr. RICK DOYLE (President, Synthetic Turf Council): I don't think anyone in our industry would suggest it's a good idea to play on a surface that's that hot.

AUBREY: But he says there are no documented cases of people being injured. It's more of a management issue, Doyle says. Just as coaches have to reschedule games due to rain on regular grass fields...

Mr. DOYLE: So too they need to reschedule or consider an alternate surface to play on when it's sunny.

AUBREY: Sunny and hot. So what about places that are like this most of the summer? Coach Mike Handow(ph), who's got permits to run daily baseball camps in Riverside Park, says there aren't a lot of options.

Mr. MIKE HANDOW (Coach): More and more fields are turning into this turf now than there used to be, because the Parks Department doesn't have to pay to maintain them. But if they're unsafe - I mean, I want to know, because I have permits for these fields every year and we have kids playing on them.

AUBREY: The New York City Health Department hired consultants to assess potential health risks of crumb rubber turf fields. Their report concludes that the risk of harm from exposure to hazardous chemicals, such as lead in the rubber, appears to be very low, unless the chemicals are ingested - basically eaten - or inhaled at high levels.

But since crumb rubber turf absorbs and retains heat, the report says heat is the primary health concern associated with playing on the fields. It says people can suffer dehydration, heatstroke, and thermal burns at field temperatures above 115 degrees. Based on these concerns, the New York City Parks Department has now decided to move away from the ground rubber and turf fields. Commissioner Liam Kavanagh says decisions have already been made.

Commissioner LIAM KAVANAGH (New York City Parks Department): We have a couple of fields that are in construction where we have actually canceled the black crumb rubber and are actively looking for an alternative.

AUBREY: The industry has offered up a couple of options, including a sand-based infill. And Cavanaugh says hopefully one will work, since overall the city likes the low-maintenance artificial turf fields. But Columbia University researcher Stuart Gaffin says he's skeptical. He says even without any black rubber added, the plastic blades of grass in synthetic turf traps a lot of heat.

Mr. GAFFIN: They're spongy and lightweight and what that means is the solar energy that's absorbed quickly gets converted into high temperatures.

AUBREY: Gaffin says without the natural system of evaporation that living grasses have, everything's working in one direction to turn sunlit turf fields into heat islands.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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