The Netherlands to phase out artificial turf over health and environmental concerns
In a significant move set to take effect from 2030 onwards, the Netherlands is poised to bid farewell to artificial grass on sports fields, opting for real grass surfaces instead. This is due to the increased cancer risks associated with artificial turf.
The artificial grass, often crafted from ‘rubber crumb’ or ‘crumb rubber’ composed of small pellets derived from discarded car tires, has raised alarm due to a study conducted across Dutch football clubs.
Of the 60 clubs involved in the study, the fields of 58 of them were found to contain 1.5 to 3.7 times higher levels of carcinogenic compounds than what is permissible in consumer products. These rubber crumb infill materials were found to harbour hazardous elements such as arsenic, benzene, carbon black, heavy metals, lead and mercury, among other carcinogens, posing potential health risks.
Amy Griffin, Associate Head Coach at the University of Washington women’s soccer team, conducted a study that compiled a list of 237 soccer players who predominantly played on artificial fields and later developed cancer. Interestingly, a majority of the affected players were goalkeepers, who had spent more time in contact with the artificial grass.
Tempering the findings to a certain extent, cancer specialist Bob Lowenberg pointed out, “There is absolutely no evidence that artificial grass pitches are bad for you, but we can’t definitively say they are safe. I think there is every reason to be concerned about artificial grass pitches.”
The Netherlands witnessed the pioneering introduction of synthetic turf in 2003 when Heracles Football Club installed it. At that time, it was considered groundbreaking, offering lower maintenance costs and eliminating the risk of matches being cancelled due to waterlogged or frozen pitches. However, players often voiced their displeasure with these surfaces, citing the increased risk of leg injuries and variations in the ball’s behaviour.
Jan Smit, the former chairman of Heracles and a trailblazer for plastic pitches, dismissed many objections, especially those related to injuries.
“You don’t hear anyone complain about artificial grass when it’s frozen for five days straight in February,” Smit snapped.
“On natural grass it becomes a mudbath and games have to be called off. And just look how bad the pitches are at clubs like Groningen and Utrecht.”
In contrast to overseas bans, Australia has seen a significant surge in the construction of synthetic fields. The chief scientist recommended that New South Wales (NSW) instead adopt an “accelerated learn and adapt approach.”
A recent report quietly released this year revealed that there are now 181 synthetic turf sports fields in NSW, a significant increase from just 24 in 2014 and 30 in 2018. Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, the chief scientist, highlighted “knowledge gaps” – especially regarding the materials and chemical composition of commonly used rubber infill.
The report also expressed concerns about the increased heat effects and doubts about claims around the turf’s performance in Australia’s climate. It remains unclear whether expectations regarding the longevity and carrying capacity of synthetic fields can be met under Australian climatic conditions, potentially influencing installation decisions and cost-benefit considerations.
The proliferation of synthetic turf not only raises serious health concerns but also has adverse environmental consequences, particularly the potential for microplastics from rubber infill to contaminate waterways.
The growing prevalence of synthetic turf underscores a fundamental issue, as noted by Dr. Sebastian Pfautsh, an Associate Professor in Urban Management and Planning at Western Sydney University.
“It really goes back to urban planning principles — as our cities expand and densify, we’re not simultaneously providing the necessary green space for recreation and recreational activities for these growing populations,” Pfautsh said.
It is clear that a measured and science-driven approach is vital to ensure the safety of athletes, the protection of our environment, and the overall enjoyment of sports. The Netherlands’ decision to prioritise natural grass fields is but one example of the ongoing dialogue and action on this front. The future of playing surfaces, and their impact on health, the environment and sports, remains a topic of considerable concern and interest.