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Synthetic Turf: Artificial Grass or Stepford Lawns?
By Ken Foster
RECENTLY there has been a large movement toward installing synthetic turf. This new generation of Astro Turf, often called eco turf, is being touted as the newest in green landscaping. To be sure, there is an impressive list of ecological concerns that this turf addresses, including the elimination of the need to mow, water, install irrigation, control weeds, fertilize or haul away grass clippings. It won't get muddy and it's wheelchair accessible. So what's not to like?
Remember the part in the movie The Stepford Wives where one of the Stepford wives gets stabbed and it messes with her wiring and she starts repeating, "I thought we were friends, I thought we were friends"? That's what I imagine synthetic turf is saying when I stab it with my accusations of being a pseudo green product. Like my friend Owen Dell would say, it's kind of like organic heroin: organic or not, it is still fundamentally a bad idea.
I'll start with the deceptively simple argument that my primary distrust of synthetic turf is based on the fact that it is not alive. It does not breathe and therefore it offers no oxygen as a byproduct. On a hot day, plastic turf smells like, well, plastic, not an enjoyable smell. It certainly is not aromatherapy. Again, because the stuff is not living and breathing, the cooling effect is absent and thus the phenomenon known as the heat island effect is increased. The "heat island" refers to urban air and surface temperatures that are higher than those of nearby rural areas.
Synthetic turf often includes crumbled automobile tires to mimic the look and feel of soil. Cool—a new way to recycle tires? The problem is that this soil is dead and, in addition, during rain it leaches chemicals such as cadmium. This leachate is considered toxic runoff. Where does it go? Straight into our rivers and oceans. Our kids are now expected to play on a low-level toxic surface. During strenuous activities, they breathe in these toxic off-gasses. Because plastic is not an inert substance, it both leaches and off-gasses pieces of itself. Plastics are known to contain xenoestrogens ("zeno estrogens") that are endocrine disruptors. Exposure to xenoestrogens, found in both pesticides and plastics, has been linked to breast and ovarian cancers in women and to decreased testosterone levels and prostate cancer in men. Exposure to even small amounts of environmental endocrine disruptors concern scientists because hormones such as estrogen act in the body at very low levels measured in parts per billion. This endocrine disruptor, xenoestrogen, can wreak havoc with the puberty cycle in the human body. With synthetic turf, there is direct and close contact with the lungs and skin of the growing bodies of children. This would not seem to me to be a great combination. When will we know if there is a detrimental effect on human health from synthetic turf? Unfortunately, the jury is out and won't report back for years to come. Just call our kids guinea kids.
Our children trust that we are providing them with a safe place to play. Our challenge is to live up to that trust amid all of the marketing hoopla about synthetic turf. It is easy to be fooled by the alluring language of this supposed "green" product.
Santa Cruz native Ken Foster is a certified permaculture designer and owner of Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping (www.terranovalandscaping.com).
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