Cultivating Natural Grass To Remove Toxics From Your Community

By Robyn Chittister

The negative effects of pesticides on humans, animals, and the earth, are well documented. Since 2008, pesticides, which include herbicides and disinfectants, have been reported in the top ten most frequent pediatric exposures to poisons. Many cities, states, and entire countries have banned pesticide use, particularly around children

You might assume these harmful substances would not be allowed in schools, parks, and your kids’ recreation centers. However, conventionally-managed grass turf for playing fields contain a wide range of pesticides. In fact, the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides reports

“The common, everyday practices used to maintain our children’s playing fields are unintentionally and unnecessarily exposing them to carcinogens, asthmagens, and developmental toxins.”

So what about artificial turf … Might that be a good solution?

Artificial Turf Is Harmful Too

Artificial turf isn’t any less toxic than conventionally-managed turf. After years of denying its use, in 2019, research by Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility (PEER), revealed that all artificial turf uses per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they do not biodegrade, and therefore persist in the environment. 

PFAS accumulate in humans and animals, and have been linked to cancer; liver, thyroid, and kidney issues; birth defects; and other serious chronic health issues. 

PFAS contaminates drinking water, groundwater, and your rivers and streams. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises that 20 parts per quadrillion is the maximum safe level for PFAS in drinking water. In Portsmouth, NH, for example, after installing a so-called “PFAS-free” field, water tests showed 135 parts per trillion of PFAS. Similarly, after installing artificial turf at Amity High School, in Woodbridge, CT, PFAS in the water supply exceeded the EPA recommendation. 

Crumb rubber infill is used in approximately 90% of synthetic turf installations, and contains neurotoxic heavy metals such as lead, as well as benzene, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Crumbs become airborne, and kids and adults occupying the plastic turf breathe them in; they are often tracked home on clothes and gear. Crumb rubber is so toxic, you can’t legally dispose of it in landfills, or in the ocean. The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) notes, as artificial turf ages, it releases lead dust, increasing children’s exposure. Artificial turf also sheds microplastics. The constant use of artificial turf creates tiny plastic particles, and these microplastics end up contaminating the environment, including waterways. 

In addition to the multiple chemical problems, artificial turf fields can reach temperatures up to 200℉. In one study, artificial turf surface temperatures averaged 140℉ to 170℉. Temperatures over 120℉ can cause burns within two seconds of skin contact. 

This is a serious problem in California where temperatures reach the triple digits in many areas, multiple days a year. In the past few years, five artificial turf fields in Los Angeles schools had to be shut down because the turf was melting on players’ cleats

Many studies have also shown that artificial turf causes more injuries than natural grass. Case Western Reserve University, and the University Hospitals Sports Medicine Institute, found that athletes were 58% more likely to become injured on artificial turf. 

Several towns and cities, including Boston, MA, and Millbrae and Los Gatos, CA, have declared moratoriums on artificial turf fields. New York State is currently considering implementing a moratorium on plastic turf until comprehensive environmental and public health studies have been completed.

Kyla Bennett, a former EPA official, and current director of science policy at PEER, says, “It’s only a matter of time before [artificial turf] is banned.”

From a temperature standpoint, natural turf fields are much cooler than artificial turf fields—the difference between a safe place to play, and heat stroke. For example, Brigham Young University in Utah has a football field that is half artificial turf and half natural turf. When testing was done in 2002, it showed the average temperature of the artificial turf field at 117℉, while the average temperature of the natural grass field was 78℉. All layers of artificial turf trap heat, not just the infill. Companies are promoting “cool infill” technologies, but the fact is that the blades of plastic turf are … plastic, and they also trap heat, not just the infill. Artificial turf will always be hotter than natural turf, and unsafe to play on

With conventionally-managed turf, and artificial turf fields being unsustainable and unsafe, there is another option to consider.

Introducing Real Grass, Organically-Managed Turf

Organically-managed natural turf fields don’t rely on petrochemicals (including plastics, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers) that conventionally-managed natural turf, and plastic turf both do. Real grass fields use a systems-approach that works with nature, and focuses on building soil health. Natural practices may include aeration—creating air pockets for better water absorption, the use of lime to create calcium and magnesium for plants, and humate, to balance nutrients and stimulate soil biology.

Organic fertilizers (aka compost and compost teas) feed the soil microbiome, and the soil feeds the grass—the way nature intended. There are no synthetics, and therefore there is zero toxic run-off, as there is with synthetic fertilizers.

A few of the benefits of organic grass turf include:

  • Increasing air quality: A natural turf soccer field helps to cleanse the air by capturing airborne particles and dust, and breaking them down by soil microbes, and returning them to the earth. 
  • Filtering pollution: Organic turf grass reduces water, land pollution, and runoff, and absorbs sound to reduce noise pollution.
  • Managing stormwater: Natural grass filters excess stormwater, reduces sediment entering bodies of water, and redirects water flow, allowing the soil to absorb more water.
  • Reducing heat: Natural turf can be 30 degrees or more cooler than asphalt. One high school baseball field provides the effects of 70 tons of air conditioning.
  • Increasing wellness and decreasing stress: Children who have Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and are active in green spaces, experience less severe symptoms. One study found that green spaces help children think more clearly, and better cope with stress.

Organically-Managed Natural Turf Is the Future

In California, SB-499, dubbed the “Cools Schools Act of 2023,” would require school sites to “replace surfaces that emit heat, such as cement, asphalt, brick, pebbles, sand, aggregates, rubber, and synthetic turf, with high specific heat (generating lower temperatures) surfaces,” including natural grass. 

University of California, Berkeley, Irvine Unified School District, and Pepperdine University, have all transitioned to managing their fields organically. Now in Marin County, Novato Unified School District is the first San Francisco Bay Area school district to begin a model project, the “NUSD Organic Turf Management Pilot Program.”

The project is managed by Non Toxic Schools, and funded by Beyond Pesticides and A Voice for Choice, to transition three of their schools’ fields to organic management. Many eyes are on this design, including environmentalists, parents, sports coaches, city officials, and other schools. They are positively anticipating this school district, with limited staff and funds, radically improving the health and vitality of their fields. Working with Chip Osborne, the national organic turf expert at Osborne Organics, on site-specific protocols designed for Novato’s climate and soils, will uplevel the direction and outcome of the project.

A community event is scheduled in Novato for September 27th, and will include special guests, Chip Osborne, and Jay Feldman, the director of Beyond Pesticides. They will explain the basics and importance of site-specific organic field management, and funding available to help other North Bay cities and schools go organic.

On September 28th, there will be a full day in-person technical training on organic field management with Chip Osborne in Petaluma. CE credits have been applied for. This training is for those who want to learn the systems-based approach to maintaining healthy lawns and fields for a sustainable future. 

To find out more about the September events, visit Non Toxic Schools.