In many areas of the country, school districts and cities are tearing out grass athletic fields and replacing them with artificial turf. The main justifications given for this usually are cost and increased usability. While turf does provide a more consistent playing field, and a turf field could host more events each year, especially during the rainy season, it has many disadvantages, including cost ($1,000,000 to install, yearly maintenance fees approximately the same as grass, needs to be replaced every 8-10 years) compared to a grass field.
My primary concern with turf fields is that they are less safe than grass fields. Many studies have shown that turf fields significantly increase injuries. Per-team injury rates in the National Football League were 27% higher for games played on a specific artificial turf (Field Turf) surface vs. games played on natural grass during the 2002 to 2008 seasons, according to a recent study, which also found 88% higher ACL injury rates and 32% higher ankle eversion sprain rates for games played on the artificial turf. An NCAA study conducted from 2004-2009 found that college football players suffer knee injuries about 40% more often when playing on an artificial surface compared to when they’re playing on grass. The NFL Players Association has advocated for the removal of turf fields as a player safety issue.
In addition to joint injuries, turf can be a dangerous surface during hot days. According to an article from the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture artificial fields cannot be played on all the time due to temperature build-up on warm-sunny days. Artificial field surface temperatures have been documented as high as 199°F on a sunny day with an air temperature of 98°F (7). Researchers at Brigham Young University reported that the surface temperature of a synthetic football field on campus averaged 117°F, with a daily high of 157°F (8). On an adjacent natural grass field the surface temperature averaged 78°F, with a daily high of 89°F. Researchers at Penn State University studied the effect of using irrigation to reduce surface temperatures of synthetic fields and discovered that temperature could be decreased with irrigation, but the effects were short-lived (20 minutes). Because of these high temperatures, an artificial field will remain largely unusable during warm days. Additionally, practicing on an artificial field could increase the incidence of heat stroke, muscle cramping, and overall athlete fatigue.
Turf can also be a breeding ground for a very serious bacterium, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, which is responsible for several difficult-to-treat infections in humans. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine linked MRSA to the abrasions caused by artificial turf. Three studies by the Texas State Department of Health found that the infection rate among football players was 16 times the national average. Studies have shown that while grass appears to hinder the growth and survivability of MRSA (and other bacteria), turf presents a very favorable environment for bacteria.
Grass fields are much safer than turf fields and cost less long-term. The healthier and safer solution to crowded/over-used athletic fields, is to build more grass fields. Tearing out grass fields for turf cannot be justified economically or ethically in most situations.