The High Social Costs of “Cheap” Artificial Turf

Justice scales
Students and their parents pay for artificial turf injuries.

A great deal of public money has been spent by school boards and park departments on artificial turf fields over the past decade. The consensus thinking was that the high initial investment would be offset by greatly reduced water use and maintenance costs over the fields’ ten-year lifespan. Unfortunately, almost all of these assumptions have turned out to be false.

The Fremont Union High School District Board recently decided to reinstall artificial turf (AT) on twelve fields. Decisions are pending in Saratoga and at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. Your local school district will probably be dealing with a similar decision soon. How will this basic community infrastructure decision of whether to replace fields with natural or synthetic turf, funded by your tax dollars, affect your family?

Part 1 in this series presented SSV’s strong preference for natural turf and gave a general overview of the drawbacks of synthetic turf.
Part 2 reviewed a bill that the California legislature passed and the governor signed, AB 1164, as well as two other promising bills which haven’t yet become law.
In today’s Part 3, we ask the question, “What is the social cost of artificial turf?”

What is Social Cost?

Social cost is sometimes called soft cost or external cost. It’s comprised of the expenses, monetary or otherwise, borne by society and private citizens for which they are not charged or compensated. The supposed cost savings from watering and mowing are shifted onto student-athletes and their families for injuries and environmental pollution, as we will explain. When the full field life cycle of ten or more years is considered, natural turf is always less expensive. We will address the injuries, abrasions, infections, and excessive heat experienced on synthetic turf in relation to a natural surface, as well as environmental contamination derived from toxic substances and metals in plastic turf.

Big Plastic: Thank you for smoking AT pipe dreams

Artificial fields are initially more expensive than natural ones, and equipment and maintenance of synthetic fields costs a similar amount to natural turf fields. Artificial fields must still be watered in order to control temperature. Artificial turf needs to be disinfected weekly to monthly. The hardness of the surface must be measured periodically. If necessary, infill must be redistributed or added. (Infill is the material, often containing crumb rubber and/or silica sand, that cushions the surface and supports the plastic grass blades.) The synthetic surface needs to be groomed via brushing. More about turf abrasions and infections follows below.

On synthetic grass:

  • A student-athlete is more likely to suffer lower extremity injuries (e.g. knee injuries, ligament and tendon sprains, strains, and tears) Average cost of Injury: $564, average cost of ACL surgery: $13,403
  • Girls are more likely than boys to sustain an ACL injury, with some reports estimating up to an 8 times greater incidence of ACL tears in girls compared with boys. Source: Hewett TE. Anterior cruciate ligament injuries in female athletes, part 1: mechanisms and risk factors. Am J Sports Med. 2006;34(2): 299-311.
  • A student-athlete is more likely to experience concussions. (Average cost: $800)
  • A student-athlete is more likely to suffer abrasions and infections. (Average cost for MRSA hospital stay: $14,000)
  • A student-athlete is more likely to experience extreme heat.
  • Your local area must contend with runoff from the plastic turf, which can leach toxins and metals into the groundwater.


Injuries that happen on school fields and other public fields generally aren’t tracked closely or systematically in any way; advocates have noted that this lack of school district reporting has the notable advantage of avoiding what could be a trail of legal liability for injuries.

Artificial turf has a substantially higher injury rate than natural grass for the lower extremities. For example, according to the National Center for Health Research, tears of the cruciate ligaments in the knee occur much more frequently on turf: PCL tears are 4 times and ACL tears occur 1.6 times more frequently. 

As mentioned previously, safety on artificial turf must be vigilantly maintained by testing field hardness regularly; infill must be added or redistributed periodically according to the results. If the field hardness isn’t tested diligently, serious injury can result, including concussions and spinal injury.

Brain and spinal injuries can be among the biggest concerns playing contact sports, like football and soccer, on synthetic surfaces. One study on 144 high school football players in the southeast US calculated the average cost of a concussion for a student at $800; study participants who went on to develop post-concussion syndrome (PCS, which can involve headache, fatigue, vision changes, disturbances in balance, confusion, dizziness, insomnia, and difficulty concentrating) had an average total medical cost upwards of $2,500. Concussions on synthetic turf are more common and tend to be more severe than those that happen on grass.

Injuries of the lower extremities (e.g. feet, ankles, and knees) also have higher prevalence on artificial turf. Several studies address the prevalence of these injuries.

Abrasions & Infections

An abrasion of exposed skin on artificial turf is known as turf burn; this painful injury is despised by athletes. An area of turf burn must be cleaned thoroughly and usually disinfected. If not, the athlete risks contracting MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), pneumonia, sepsis, and other infections. In extreme cases, MRSA can cause hospitalization or death. MRSA usually doesn’t survive long on the plastic turf itself, but the fact that athletes on artificial fields have been measured to sustain seven times as many abrasions means that these athletes are much more likely to contract a MRSA infection.

Extreme Heat

Temperatures on artificial fields are 20° to 70° higher than their surroundings on warm, sunny days. With temperatures of 180°F or more, athletes can suffer heat stroke, dehydration, and thermal burns. The properties of playing fields with synthetic turf largely match the causes of urban heat islands described by the EPA. Natural grass, on the other hand, would diminish the heat island effect. Further, the artificial field isn’t permeable in the way a grass field is naturally. This lack of evaporative cooling, which with grass occurs naturally, also contributes to the heat island.

Environmental Pollution

A Spanish study revealed that fibers from artificial grass are more pervasive than was previously believed.

Recycled tire-based turf infill contains heavy metals, volatile organic compounds like benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and 1,3-butadiene. The plastic “grass blades” degrade due to wear from usage, exposure to sunlight, and environmental factors, potentially shedding microplastics. Additionally, both plastic and rubber components are highly flammable. These factors collectively harm the surrounding environment and pose a toxic threat to athletes.

In conclusion, artificial turf fields cost more, are comparable to natural turf fields in terms of maintenance, contribute to more injuries, cause a heat island effect, leach harmful chemicals and metals, and are currently impossible to recycle.