Students like relaxing on it, athletes like playing on it, but is artificial turf safer?

Posted Sept. 18, 2012, at 2:30 p.m.

LEWISTON — When Bates College replaced the sod at venerable Garcelon Field with synthetic turf in 2010, college athletic officials thought the field could be an effective tool on two fronts — the recruiting wars and the battle with Mother Nature.

What they didn’t expect was for the at-large student population to turn the football field at the campus’ center into a scene out of an Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon movie.

“You come out here in the spring on a nice day and there are people everywhere,” said Bates College Director of Athletics Kevin McHugh. “They’ve got blankets out, they’re reading, they’re throwing frisbees. It’s like the alternative to the beach scene.”

“I didn’t anticipate it becoming like that center part of campus. That didn’t happen when it was a grass field, for whatever reason,” he added.

As relaxed as Bates’ students feel on the plush, green, fake grass, the athletes among them feel even more comfortable. A level, consistent, more weather-resistant surface gives them a little more peace of mind.

“You get a lot better grip guaranteed every time and it just feels better all the way around,” senior offensive lineman Ryan Weston said. “I feel much more sure-footed. I feel like my cleats have a sure grip as opposed to on grass, they might slip out from underneath you if the conditions are off one way or another. It’s just more confidence for me that I can get where I need to go.”

Weston believes practicing and playing on the Garcelon FieldTurf, which was installed before his sophomore year, has helped his chronic knee problems.

“It’s much softer, a lot more cushion, a lot more give to it,” Weston said.

“I think it’s been beneficial, especially for the big guys,” Bates coach Mark Harriman said. “The surface is very forgiving. Being an old guy, I know standing around on a hard field later in the season, or even on the rug turf, you can feel it in your knees and your back and things like that. This is really, really forgiving on those joints.”

While there isn’t sufficient evidence to definitively declare whether synthetic turf fields cause more or less wear-and-tear on athletes, there have been several studies comparing injury rates on artificial and natural surfaces.

The New York State Department of Health identified five studies that compared injury rates among athletes playing on infilled synthetic turf such as FieldTurf and natural turf and concluded that there were no major differences. There were differences in the types of injuries, “but no consistent pattern across the studies,” according to a department summary.

Some studies show that the grip Weston enjoys from Garcelon’s FieldTurf may not be entirely a good thing.

A study conducted by an NFL safety panel published this week in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that leg injuries are more likely on FieldTurf than grass.

They found knee sprains and ankle sprains were 22 percent more common in games played on FieldTurf than on grass. Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sprains were 67 percent more common on FieldTurf.

FieldTurf officials dismissed the study as flawed.

Another study published in the AJSM earlier this year found that college football players were nearly 40 percent more likely to suffer knee injuries playing on artificial turf than grass. FieldTurf cites another study published in the AJSM that found significantly fewer frequent occurrences of knee, head and shoulder injuries. Skin injuries and muscle strains were more common on artificial turf.

Studies have also proven inconclusive in soccer, where the use of artificial turf is hotly debated as much for aesthetic and gameplay reasons as safety.

Critics have raised other health concerns about artificial turf, most of which have been discredited.

According to the New York health department report, the jury is still out on whether athletes are more at risk to develop infections such as MRSA when playing on artificial turf. Studies show children are in little danger from exposure to chemicals such as lead if they swallow or inhale the rubber infill or have it come into contact with their skin.

Some types of turf fibers have been shown to contain elevated levels of lead. Age and weathering can cause turf made of nylon or nylon/polyethylene blend fibers to break down into dust with elevated lead levels. Tests of artificial turf fields made with only polyethylene fibers showed very low levels of lead. FieldTurf and other manufacturers who use polyethylene blends have lead-free certification.

Synthetic turf fields do get hotter than their grass counterparts, up to 37 degrees hotter than the air temperature, according to a Brigham Young University study.

Those issues haven’t kept a rapidly growing number of schools in Maine from installing artificial turf, nor have they prevented people in Lewiston from undertaking a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign for renovations at Franklin Pasture that would include two new FieldTurf fields.

“We are aware of the concerns that are out there,” Lewiston High School Athletic Director Jason Fuller said. “We’re going to make the best decision for kids. Safety is obviously a priority.”

McHugh said Bates hasn’t had any health problems related to its two artificial turf fields, Garcelon Field and Campus Avenue Field.

The latter has an Astroturf surface which is used by Bates’ field hockey and lacrosse teams and will probably have to be replaced soon, McHugh said.

“It’s an old Astroturf, going on 10 or 11 years now,” he said. “It’s getting a little hard and it’s got that abrasiveness [Garcelon] doesn’t have.”

Replacing the Astroturf with FieldTurf isn’t a given because field hockey prefers a smoother surface. But other fields, such as baseball’s Leahey Field, could get a FieldTurf makeover soon.

“It’s been all of the things that people say,” he said. “We’ve gotten tons more use out of it. We haven’t charted out the costs, but there has to be a significant savings. It’s hard to imagine not having it now.”

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