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In Defense of AstroTurf

The scare stories about lead poisoning are indefensible.

By 4.25.08

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Here's one for the annals of overreaction: Fields made of artificial turf are being investigated as major health hazards because some of them contain lead.

Now, fans and players alike have hated artificial turf for years. Purists don't like the fake-looking fields. Old-fashioned grass stains on a player's jersey from a diving catch or a hard tackle are badges of honor, worn with pride. But lead poisoning? That's a new one.

There's a good reason we haven't heard about this problem before. There is no evidence of synthetic fields causing lead poisoning in even a single athlete. Anywhere. Ever.

On a slow news day, that doesn't really matter. Over 250 news outlets so far have run stories, including USA Today, the International Herald Tribune, and CNN.

Officials have closed down fields in New Jersey and upstate New York. The federal government has even decided to get involved. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating.

ARTIFICIAL TURF HAS a long and checkered history since its invention in 1964, quite apart from bogus charges of lead poisoning. In 1966 it was installed in the Astrodome, then home of baseball's Houston Astros.

Because of this, it was quickly nicknamed AstroTurf, and the name stuck. Stadium after stadium soon adopted AstroTurf. Players and fans didn't much care for it, though. Baseball has mostly switched back to old-fashioned grass.

Newer, better kinds of turf have been invented, such as FieldTurf. Softer than AstroTurf, players like the consistent footing it offers. It also looks more like actual grass. Many NFL stadiums now feature it. In an appeal to purists, the DD GrassMaster System combines synthetic fibers and real grass. This Frankenstein mix now covers hallowed Lambeau Field.

Outside of the big leagues, many schools and parks have been quietly switching to artificial turf. It can be a money-saver in the long run because it doesn't need to be mowed or watered and doesn't require expensive pesticides.

All in all, about 3,500 fields are covered in artificial turf. In many of the older fields, a compound called lead chromate is embedded in the pigments covering fibers. It helps a field retain its color after years of sunlight exposure. The new concern is that running, sliding, and tackling can dislodge particles from the field and that players could then inhale or ingest the airborne, lead-containing fibers.

You can see why this story would lend itself to sensationalism. Lead poisoning can harm mental development in children, and can impair the nervous system. Fortunately, as any epidemiologist will tell you, it is the dose that makes the poison. That dose does not appear to be in the fields.

One reason is that the lead chromate is encapsulated in plastic and resin. That keeps it bound to the fiber, so it can do its job of preventing color degradation. If it didn't stay on the fiber, there would be no point in using it in the first place.

BUT WHAT IF, critics ask, in the heat of the game, a player ingests or inhales a dislodged fiber?

The problem with that question is that the nylons and plastics used in artificial turf are not exactly known for their digestibility. Our systems can't absorb them. The fibers don't taste very good, anyway. If one somehow gets into a player's mouth, he'll spit it out if he can.

That's fortunate because it doesn't take a lot of lead to cause harm to people. Doses as low as 100 micrograms per liter of blood can be worrisome. But artificial turf has been in use for more than 40 years now, and not a single case of lead poisoning can be blamed on it.

One thing that makes the recent scare even more ridiculous is that lead chromate has been falling out of favor for years, anyway. Newer fields aren't made of nylon, so it's no longer needed to prevent fading.

Why, then, is the press scaring people? Perhaps it's because we like to be scared. Headlines warning of urgent doom are great for circulation, even when they turn out to be untrue. When's the last time you read an article all the way through that said, "everything's fine, nothing to see here"?

Sober, non-sensationalist science reporting is bad for business, so it gets weeded out over time. Much like H.L. Mencken's theory of democracy, news consumers are getting what they want, good and hard.

That's a real shame. The government is now wasting tax dollars investigating a non-threat because journalists decided to get the lead out.

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About the Author

Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.