Research, safety and the future of artificial turf

Recent announcements have once again put synthetic field systems in the spotlight. Perhaps the most assertive comments were made by Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) president Joseph S. Blatter on a German TV show, “Inside Sport” on October 5, 2009 and rapidly spread through the worldwide sports community. An excerpt from the German newspaper, “Die Welt” reports Blatter saying, “…that artificial turf is the ‘future of football,’ as well as claiming that ‘most countries around the world will play on artificial turf one day because it can be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week.’”

More research on grooming synthetic fields will add additional data to that already compiled.
Research will assess the impact of painting markings on synthetic surfaces as compared to markings incorporated into the playing surface.

Those comments followed the report of the conclusion of a study conducted by the German Sport University of Cologne, stating that, “well-maintained artificial pitches have no measurable effect on the game.”

Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council (STC), notes Nigel Fletcher from FIFA presented the results of that study to attendees of the STC member meeting held in San Diego October 6 to 8, 2009. “We will be receiving the details of the study and will post them on our Web site,” says Doyle. “Promotion of these results is further evidence of FIFA’s acceptance of synthetic football turf as a critical option for the organization and facility of the site that can’t maintain a high-quality natural turf field, such as South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.”

Expanded sports field-centered research initiatives on the U.S. side are also creating a stir. Penn State has teamed with FieldTurf in a five-year commitment to sports surface research. Dr. Andy McNitt, associate professor of soil science for Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, will serve as director of the new Center for Sports Surface Research.

The University of Tennessee (UT) has partnered with AstroTurf to create the Center for Safer Athletic Fields, geared to research comparing natural grass playing surfaces to synthetic turf systems. Key researchers for this center are Dr. John Sorochan, associate professor and turfgrass specialist with the department of plant sciences in the University of Tennessee College of Agricultural Science and Natural Resources, and Dr. Jim Brosnan, assistant professor and turfgrass specialist.

McNitt says the Penn State research will center on synthetic and natural turf systems, primarily outdoors, but with indoor study as research directs, and expanding into other sports surfaces, initially including track and basketball. The University of Tennessee will research outdoor systems, according to Sorochan.

Both centers are open to take on other partners in the future as they seek to broaden the research to explore all aspects that impact the surfaces and the athletes. Both will test a myriad of different synthetics, those commercially available and those in development. Sorochan says, “For natural turf, we’ll use five different rootzones with the transition zone grasses: blue, rye and bermuda.” Though Penn State is in the cool-season zone, McNitt says, “We do have some bermuda plots installed here that are doing well. Our window of testing is just shorter.”

Hot topics

Heat is an ongoing issue. Though it’s not a factor when it’s cloudy or during the evenings, it’s fairly well documented that, on sunny days, synthetic surfaces get significantly hotter than natural grass. The heat goes through the shoe and into the feet and must be dissipated. While efforts are ongoing in alerting trainers, coaches, athletes and parents to monitor this, research will focus on an effective way to control it.

Alternative infill products, such as this natural infill, will undergo testing for multiple factors.

Alternatives in infill will continue to be researched, with the heat issue one part of that equation. Additional testing will look at playability, hardness, wearability, off-gassing, leaching and how the various materials hold up over time.

Safety is a top topic, with both centers focusing on human movement and how the athlete and playing surface interact. McNitt says, “Traditionally, the kinesiologists’ research has gone to the bottom of the shoe, and our studies have gone to the bottom of the shoe. We’ll be wiring athletes and having them perform maneuvers and working with cadavers in similar studies to see the actions and reactions and gauge the effect of varying surfaces on different joints with different types of shoes and cleats. The challenge will be trying to limit all the other variables: temperature, moisture, all the maintenance procedures that impact natural turf and those with synthetics, such as the age of the system, the density of the infill and whether it’s been groomed recently.”

Some of the research will key on the environmental impacts for all types of surfaces, with many aspects to explore, including leachate, carbon sequestration, ecology and recycling. Research will include further study into off gassing, the release of certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by components of the synthetic systems and the crumb rubber.

Another hot topic is wear. Sorochan says, “We’ll be simulating multiple levels of wear from one sport to multiple sport fields, through all the levels of athlete size and skill, from premium game-only fields to daily use fields. We’ll factor in non-sports events, too. While we can’t simulate every condition, the transition zone does provide some of the extremes.”

Researchers will continue to study synthetic field system grooming techniques, timing and frequency under various conditions and field use levels.

Performance is a major issue, from the point of construction or installation throughout the life of the field. This encompasses multiple areas of research from the natural or synthetic materials used, construction and/or installation procedures and long-term maintenance.

Accessing the data

University-based research includes recording testing results with the data available industrywide. McNitt says Penn State has been tracking the results of grooming on synthetic surfaces for seven years, with all but the current year’s data posted on the Web site:

Quantifiable research data can address issues that spark widespread public and media attention, such as the concerns about MRSA and synthetic turf. Two Penn State studies: A Survey of Microbial Populations in Infilled Synthetic Turf Fields, and Survival of Staphylococcus aureus on Synthetic Turf, also are posted on the Web site.

ASTM standards

The issue of lead content in synthetic turf fibers prompted action in multiple sectors, including field owners and producers, testing laboratories, university researchers and governmental regulatory agencies. Initially, there was confusion over testing procedures, as different results occurred from different methods. Additionally, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission asked the industry to remove all intentionally added lead from turf fibers. Subsequently, ASTM International formed a subcommittee to address these issues and has issued a new standard: ASTM F2765, Specification for Total Lead Content in Synthetic Turf Fibers. ASTM announced another task group has been formed to “address the environmental and health issues related to synthetic turf infill materials.

ASBA certification

Fred Stringfellow, executive vice president of the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) addressed the newly introduced field builder certification program, which has been in development for over a year.

“Qualified applicants could seek certification for both natural and synthetic fields, gaining the Certified Field Builder (CFB) designation if successful. Or they could seek certification only on natural fields (CFB-N) or only synthetic fields (CFB-S). All qualified applicants take a core test, and then either one or both of the surface-specific tests,” Stringfellow says. The first testing will take place the first week in December.

Moving forward

As research and testing move forward, and standards and certification set industry benchmarks, innovation is sure to follow. Researchers expect significant data to become available early in the process. Industry suppliers anticipate the ability to use this data to identify key areas of performance and make ongoing adaptations to integrate them into product development. Sports field managers will gain a greater body of knowledge for comparison of all sports field systems to more effectively assist their facilities in making decisions on new fields and retaining top performance on existing fields.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.