Artificial Turf Linked to Cancer Deaths of Six Phillies Athletes

Artificial Turf Linked to Cancer Deaths of Six Phillies Athletes

Artificial turf is quickly becoming a popular alternative to natural grass in sports fields, homes, and recreational areas nationwide. Several factors, including lower maintenance costs and reduced water usage, are driving the transition to artificial turf. However, despite the increase in artificial turf, toxic chemicals in synthetic fields are raising concerns. In particular, the tragic deaths of six former Philadelphia Phillies baseball players may be due to the extensive use of artificial turf in their home stadium. These deaths suggest a possible connection between artificial turf and cancer. 

About Artificial Turf 

Artificial grass, or synthetic turf, is a type of surface made from human-made fibers to resemble natural grass. The material used in artificial grass can vary, but typically manufacturers use polyethylene, a type of plastic. The grass fibers are threaded through a backing material and filled with sand or rubber granules to keep the fibers upright and provide cushioning for users. 

Why Are More People Using Artificial Turf?

Since its introduction in 1966, the prevalence of artificial turf has been steadily growing. People are turning to artificial grass as a low-maintenance and cost-effective alternative to natural grass. A lot more work goes into maintaining natural grass, as it requires regular watering, fertilizing, and mowing to keep its appearance. Artificial grass is also more durable and can withstand heavy foot traffic, making it a popular choice for sports fields and playgrounds. 

Environmental Benefits of Artificial Turf 

Artificial turf harbors several environmental benefits. Many argue artificial turf is environmentally friendly since it requires no water, pesticides, or gas-powered maintenance. Natural grass requires 55 gallons of water per square foot annually. However, artificial turf promotes water conservation, especially in drought-stricken areas. Additionally, it eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, reducing the number of harmful chemicals that can seep into groundwater. Finally, artificial turf reduces emissions and air pollution from gas-powered mowers. 

Despite these advantages, there is increasing unease regarding synthetic turf and cancer. 

Artificial Turf and Cancer 

In March 2023, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that six athletes exposed to artificial turf throughout their careers died from the same rare brain cancer. The baseball players spent most of their careers with the Philadelphia Phillies. Tug McGraw, Darren Daulton, John Vukovich, John Oates, Ken Brett, and David West all died in their 40s and 50s, three times the national average for the adult male population. The Phillies played for decades on artificial turf in Veterans Stadium, which some speculate is responsible for the deaths. 

Artificial turf contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These synthetic chemicals are in countless consumer products, but studies suggest they may cause cancer and other health complications. In addition to PFAS, several artificial turfs contain heavy metals, benzene, volatile organic compounds, and other carcinogens. These contaminants have further fueled the debate surrounding artificial turf and cancer. 

PFAS: The Inescapable “Forever Chemicals” 

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they are highly persistent and do not break down easily in the environment. They consist of strong carbon-fluorine bonds, making them resistant to heat, water, and oil. Due to these unique properties, companies have used PFAS since the 1940s in products like non-stick cookware, food wrappers, waterproof clothing, and more. 

However, PFAS may cause several health issues, including cancer, thyroid disease, kidney disease, and immune system problems. Several lawsuits have been filed against manufacturers of PFAS for injuries connected to these chemicals, most notably firefighting foam lawsuits and PFAS water contamination claims

PFAS in Artificial Turf 

Scientists worry that PFAS and other dangerous chemicals in artificial turf led the players to develop glioblastoma. Glioblastoma is a fast-growing and aggressive brain tumor that can prove lethal. 

Brain tumor experts commented that it is impossible to prove PFAS caused all the players’ brain tumors. These experts suggested concussions, pesticides, or chewing tobacco, could have contributed to the brain tumors. However, independent testing has provided some unsettling results. The Inquirer had pieces of the artificial turf tested at two labs, which revealed sixteen types of PFAS. Players could have inhaled, ingested, or absorbed these PFAS through their skin, resulting in fatal brain tumors. 

Furthermore, testing conducted by Chinese researchers in March 2022 discovered a high occurrence of PFAS in human brain tumors. And in January 2022, researchers in Italy noted that PFAS could accumulate in the brain over time, particularly in the brainstem. 

Scientists Demand More Testing Into Artificial Turf and Cancer

Scientists from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Environmental Working Group call for more studies on the connection between artificial turf and cancer. Right now, the number of studies looking at artificial turf and cancer is slim. More investigation is needed to see how much PFAS players are exposed to on synthetic fields and how this impacts their health.  

Manufacturers in the synthetic turf industry stand by the safety of their products, stating the amount of PFAS is not a cause for concern. However, some parts of Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts have started limiting the use of synthetic fields, with some states considering full-on bans. 

Given the untimely deaths of the Philadelphia Phillies players and the escalating backlash against PFAS, there will likely be a stronger emphasis on researching the potential link between artificial turf and cancer.