While MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) isn’t by any means a new concern in the health and fitness industry (it is, after all, one of the reasons behind the thriving market for products like antiseptic wipes for gym equipment), we’re just starting to investigate what it can mean for synthetic turf athletic fields.
The answer, in short, is this: not as much as you might think. And that’s really good news for all parties with the industry – including athletes, field managers and team owners.
Andrew McNitt, Ph.D., professor at Penn State University’s Department of Agronomy, has been involved in multiple research studies on the interaction between MRSA and synthetic turf. And the findings, he says, have been consistent: MRSA won’t survive, much less grow, on synthetic fields, even in big stadiums that get a lot of use.
“MRSA wants to live on people,” says McNitt. “Its ideal temperature is 98.6 degrees. It doesn’t like to live on inanimate objects.” That includes synthetic athletic fields. Also, MRSA won’t grow on natural fields, as it can’t live in soil or on natural grasses
But since synthetic fields have come under scrutiny for health-related issues, much pressure has been put on field managers in some instances to make sure appropriate precautions are taken during the playing season. In one study of the interaction between synthetic fields and MRSA, says McNitt, researchers cultured 20 fields around Pennsylvania.
“We found a little bacteria or fungus here and there,” he notes. “But we didn’t find MRSA.”
Researchers even tried to grow MRSA by adding huge concentrations of it on small areas of artificial turf. “The first time we did it, we thought we had made a mistake – there was no bacteria,” says McNitt. “We thought something had gone wrong.”
Researchers quickly realized that even without trying to disinfect the turf, MRSA was dying. Within minutes of being on the turf, it was no longer living, and within a matter of hours, there were no traces of it.
The best disinfectant of all, says McNitt, was coming from above – and it was free. “Sunlight is a fantastic disinfectant for bacteria,” he explains. “Even visible blue light kills bacteria. We’ve seen that some professional and college teams will have a hand-held blue light and when an athlete comes off the field with abrasions from the turf, they’ll wave the blue light over it to kill off the bacteria.”
That means, McNitt adds, that although there are sprays, foggers and more, it actually behooves a field manager not to invest in them. And in fact, the NFL agrees.
“The NFL has outlawed the use of anti- microbial products on fields,” McNitt notes. “They studied it and came to the conclusion there is no reason to apply anything.”
For indoor fieldhouses with natural turf, the rules change a bit, but it’s still an inhospitable environment for MRSA. In fact, McNitt notes, researchers were able to grow MRSA on indoor synthetic fields, “but only if the temperature was at least 74 degrees, with really high humidity, and it was pitch black.” And those, he notes, “are just not the conditions you find in reality.”
Science has tried to replicate the sun as a disinfectant. For indoor field owners who really want that UV light on indoor surfaces, there are attachments that can be pulled behind field machinery that include UV fluorescent tubes. But if you want a lower-cost method, McNitt points out that researchers ran tests to compare the efficacy of using commercial anti-microbial products with that of using liquid Tide, which worked just as well, he notes. “You can spray it down and run a broom across the field.”
Although foggers and sprays are available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have noted these are largely ineffective – and some purists say they simply add more chemicals to the playing environment, whether indoor or outdoor.
While one study showed that football players whose games and practices took place on synthetic turf had a higher incidence of MRSA than those in other sports, McNitt argues synthetic turf can be more abrasive than grass. Once athletes are injured, and because football is a contact sport, they can run into, tackle or come into skin-to-skin contact with others who are carrying the bacteria.
However, McNitt notes, that’s not to say tackle football is to blame. MRSA can be found in environments adjacent to the sport, such as strength training rooms and locker rooms where the bacteria may actually be found. In these cases, wiping down training equipment, tables and other surfaces can be beneficial. Unfortunately, while MRSA can be diagnosed in an athlete, there’s no way of knowing exactly where it was contracted.
At the end of the day, says McNitt, there are always going to be products that can be sprayed around, combed through or fogged into a field – and it’s the choice of the field owner, manager and others whether or not to use them.
“I just don’t think there’s a case for treating fields, though,” McNitt notes, “and I can’t even find any reason to disinfect an outdoor field, ever.”