Can Artificial Grass Give You Cancer?

News reports hint at a link between plastic grass and cancer. But a distinction needs to be made between sports fields and home applications, and manufacturers need to come clean.

In an unfortunate coincidence, I had been weighing the pros and cons of artificial lawn grass, and was about to put down a big patch of fake grass in my backyard, when a news feed rolled across my laptop about six Philadelphia baseball players who died of brain cancer, possibly linked to their time playing on artificial turf.

green_builder_media_lawns_cancer-1I put my project on hold, while I’ve been digging deeper into new and past research on artificial grass. To simplify, I’m going to distinguish between artificial turf for sports fields, and faux lawns for homeowners. This is key to assessing the risks and benefits.

One of the things I found confusing about the new research is the “vector” by which human beings might have significant exposure to the grass. Does a face plant at the 20-yard-line constitute a major exposure? Or is there something in the air? Researchers wonder whether the entry point for these chemicals might be through the skin, when athletes slide on the stuff and grind it into their flesh, but direct cause-and-effect evidence is lacking. 

For example, at Washington State about 5 years ago, a coach suggested that turf might have caused a cancer “cluster” in former players. Research by the Washington State Dept of Health , however, found that the apparent high level of players with cancer was not statistically abnormal.

Of special concern is the “crumb rubber” used as a filler on artificial grass. It causes the grass strands to stand up, and adds some cushion to the ground. It’s made from ground up auto tires, and can contain elevated levels of heavy metals such as lead, and other health hazards such as “Carbon black” and benzothiazole.

Crumb rubber, despite being an obvious vector for inhaled, ingested or “absorbed” toxins, has been tested since at least the mid-2000s. But even this material, which is clearly not something you want in your body, is tough to connect directly to health outcomes. The New York Dept. of Health, for instance, simulated what might happen if children” play on a crumb rubber based lawn

“None of these simulated absorption studies indicated that ingestion of crumb-rubber by children would pose a significant health risk. A controlled study that fed crumb rubber to laboratory rats for 14 days and incorporated crumb rubber into their bedding material found no signs of adverse health effects resulting from the exposures.”

Let’s take the focus off of crumb rubber, however, and look at the residential artificial lawns. They’re installed differently from sports turf, although the share some of the same characteristics, most notably, a backer and

The PFAS Problem

Crumb rubber tends to be the most talked about toxic stuff in artificial turf, but modern artificial turf contains what may be an even more insidious threat: PFAS. This is a class of so-called “forever chemicals,” about 12,000 in number, that “are linked to cancer, liver problems, thyroid issues, birth defects, kidney disease, decreased immunity and other serious health problems.”

According to The Guardian, testing of sports turf found a toxic brew of PFAS:

“Recent independent testing of multiple artificial fields has found the presence of highly toxic PFAS compounds like 6:2 FTOH and PFOS. The EPA recently revised its health advisory for PFOS to state that in effect no level of exposure to it in drinking water is safe. The Inquirer bought pieces of the Phillies artificial turf and had it tested at two labs, and found it contained 16 types of PFAS, including PFOS.”

PFAS are not to be trifled with. Could they be the smoking gun in sports fields that’s making players sick? Just recently, a Chinese study linked PFAS in the brain to higher levels of brain cancer.

When you start looking at PFAS in artificial turf, you still face the conundrum of proving health causality. As the EPA points out, “PFAS are found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the nation and the globe.” Did all of the afflicted baseball players with brain cancers drink from a tainted water supply at the stadium? Were their uniforms treated with fire retardants? Or is it possible that decades of handling baseballs rolling around in PFA-laced faux grass quietly poisoned these ball players? Did they inhale some airborne PFA particulate kicked up by cleats? As brain experts point out, proving causality between the environment and cancer is challenging.

Many Pathways for PFAS

So the natural next question is, do all brands of artificial grass contain PFAS? Are there any that are “clean and green?”

Probably not. To date, most of the so-called “non-toxic” grass makers have focused on removing crumb rubber infill from their installs. But home installations often use other materials for infill anyway, such as sand or fine gravel.

One of the better research reports I found on PFAS in artificial grass can be found here . The study goes into great detail about which parts of artificial grass tend to be high in PFAS and why. 

One of the more interesting details is that these products used to be made out of a less toxic polyethylene, but it was harder to get the plastic out of the molds at the factory. So they added non-stick PFAS. The research also hints at a connection between skin contact with PFAS-laced materials and human health.

To date, most of the research around PFAS focuses on its introduction to local water supplies. A very tiny amount in the mix is considered dangerous to human health. But lumping potential leachate risks into warnings about artificial lawns expands the conversation into a wider discussion than media reports suggest.

Artificial lawns might be perfectly safe for your kids to play on (although, we need more studies), but it’s clearly detrimental to your well water, or a nearby stream. That doesn’t make it environmentally benign, but it does challenge the current narrative that suggests that simply having daily contact with the product will give you cancer. 

Lawn Makers Need to Share Their Chemistry

The easy solution for homeowners  is to err on the side of caution, and not to use artificial lawns. But I don’t like this alternative. It feels like a premature surrender of what could be a highly sustainable technology. Instead, we need three initiatives from manufacturers. If they could test, label and mitigate for these risks, I would be willing to endorse the many benefits of artificial lawns over the potential health risks:

  • Skin Contact Testing . Clarify for customers whether these products are safe for close contact with children or pets. That means testing by various methods whether bare feet or toys or lawn furniture pick up PFAS from existing products.
  • PFAS-free Labeling . Manufacturers whose products do not contain PFAS (if any do exist—I could not fine one) should tout that fact loudly in their marketing and certification materials.
  • Retooling for PFAS Free Extrusion. Companies still using PFAS to make artificial lawns should phase out this practice immediately, then tout their cleaner, greener approach to maintenance-free lawns.

Perks of Artificial Turf Installation

After the initial embodied energy of production, the perks begin to add up.

  • No watering. It’s not just the cost of water to factor in. Keeping a real lawn irrigated requires regular attention or a costly irrigation system that needs fairly regular maintenance. Add in the reality of about half of the US is typically under drought conditions, and it’s a natural, unnatural solution.
  • No Roundup . I use the brand name here instead of the more generic “herbicides,” because so many people use Roundup improperly as a verb. In my opinion, selective herbicides don’t belong on our lawns or in our waterways. Artificial grass removes the need for all and any herbicides.
  • No Mower Pollution . Artificial grass not only saves on mowing time, it keeps the largely unfiltered smoke from small engines out of the air. The EPA says that lawn mowers account for 5 percent of total US air pollution.
  • No Mower. A new riding lawnmower can cost $6000 or more. They tend to last 6 to 10 years. So factor in the cost of two lawnmowers ($12,000), not counting mower maintenance, in your overall pros and cons comparison with real grass.
  • 20-Year Life Expectancy. Along with this long life, some types of artificial lawns claim to be fully recyclable at end of life. That’s a lof of years without watering, weed killer or noisy, polluting lawn mowers.

Author's Note: Since publishing this story, I have identified a few manufacturers that appear to offer products that are PFA free. The bizarre fact that they are oriented toward pet safety, not human safety, does not escape notice.

Here are some PFAS-free artificial lawn options to consider:

  1. The RealGrass Lawns Standard Artificial Grass: manufactured by RealGrass, this is a durable, yet realistic-looking artificial lawn that is free from PFAS and other harmful chemicals.
  2. K9Grass: made by ForeverLawn, this product is designed specifically for dogs (eliminates pet odors). It is also PFAS-free and made without heavy metals, latex, or other harmful chemicals.
  3. Global Syn-Turf: they manufacture a line of artificial grass products that do not contain PFAS, including their Pet Turf line, which is designed specifically for pets.