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Once hailed as a drought fix, California moves to restrict synthetic turf over health concerns

This story appeared on Calmatters

In summary

California cities can ban synthetic turf under a law Gov. Gavin Newsom signed. He rejected a bill to ban PFAS in fake lawns.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last week passed on a chance to limit the use of the so-called “forever chemicals” in legions of plastic products when he vetoed a bill that would have banned them in synthetic lawns. 

His veto of an environmental bill that overwhelmingly passed the Legislature underscores California’s convoluted guidance on the plastic turf that some homeowners, schools and businesses use in place of grass in a state accustomed to drought. 

Less than a decade ago then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law prohibiting cities and counties from banning synthetic grass. At the time, the state was in the middle of a crippling drought and fake lawns were thought to be helpful in saving water.

But this year Democrats in the Legislature went in a different direction, proposing bills that would discourage synthetic turf. They’re worried about health risks created by the chemicals present in these lawns, including perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS chemicals. Some chemicals in the crumb rubber base of synthetic turf, such as bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, can leach out during extreme heat. These chemicals have been linked to various chronic diseases including cancers, diabetes and neurological impairments.

Dianne Woelke, a retired nurse in San Diego, is among the Californians who’ve grown concerned about their neighbors’ synthetic lawns. She joined a group called Safe Healthy Playing Fields to advocate against their use.

“It’s staggering the depth of minutia involved in this product. It’s just a lot of plastic with a lot of chemicals leaching from it,” Woelke said.

One of the bills Newsom signed, for instance, undoes the Brown-era law and allows cities and counties to again ban artificial turf. Some California cities have already begun moving to prohibit fake lawns, including Millbrae in San Mateo County and San Marino in Los Angeles County. 

“Emerging research is making it clear that artificial turf poses an environmental threat due to its lack of recyclability and presence of toxins such as lead and PFAS,” said state Sen. Ben Allen, the Redondo Beach Democrat who authored the bill. With the new law “local governments will again be able to regulate artificial turf in a way to both protect our environment in the face of drought and climate change but also by preventing further contribution to our recycling challenges and toxic runoff,” he said.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Ben Allen

D

Ben Allen

State Senate, District 24 (Redondo Beach)


Ben Allen

State Senate, District 24 (Redondo Beach)

How he voted 2021-2022
Liberal
Conservative
District 24 Demographics

Voter Registration

Dem

51%
GOP

20%
No party

23%
Campaign Contributions

Sen. Ben Allen has taken at least
$652,000
from the Labor
sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents
15%
of his total campaign contributions.

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Manufacturers of synthetic turf say they are working to address concerns about the materials they use, although for the most part they have been unable to entirely remove PFAS. Some have switched to sand and other safer products in an attempt to replace rubber crumb.

“Our members are already working with existing customers, states, and local governments to demonstrate the continued safety of our products and are committed to ensuring their products contain no intentionally added PFAS,” Melanie Taylor, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, wrote in a statement to CalMatters.

Newsom in vetoing the PFAS chemicals bill wrote that he “strongly” supports the intent of the legislation, but he was concerned that the state was not positioned to ensure its effectiveness. 

The bill “does not identify or require any regulatory agency to determine compliance with, or enforce, the proposed statute,” he wrote in his veto message.

He also wrote that he’s directing his administration to consult with lawmakers on “alternative approaches to regulating the use of these harmful chemicals in consumer products,” suggesting the issue could return in the next legislative year. 

Chemical risks from fake lawns

Synthetic turf is a man-made, non-living replacement of turfgrass that requires no water or maintenance. The grass blades are made of fibers such as nylon or plastic while the base is typically a crumb rubber made from used tires, plastic pellets or sand. 

Synthetic grass usually contains PFAS chemicals. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PFAS chemicals are a known carcinogen which can interfere with hormones, reproduction, immunity and cause developmental delays in children.

Adam Smith, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Southern California, said although research is still being done to understand fully what the health implications of the chemical are, current research suggests that “PFAS is absolutely bad for human health.”

“Certainly, in terms of the drought, (synthetic turf) seems great, but there’s all of these downsides,” Smith said.

Workers roll out artificial turf after digging up a lawn due to the drought, at a home in Laguna Niguel in 2015. Photo by Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

According to experts, these chemicals can enter the human body through contact with skin, by breathing the particles in or through water sources, especially groundwater sources, that can get contaminated during leaching.

Microplastics from the grass blades and crumb rubber can also leach into groundwater and freshwater bodies.

“These molecules are actually entering the food chains in the ocean, and they’re in our system, they’re in our blood, they’re in our muscles,” said Sylvia Earle, a marine life advocate and former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We’ve changed the nature of nature through actions that we’ve taken. Now they are coming back to haunt us.”

At what temperatures is it a risk?

Research by the National Toxicology Program shows that high heat can cause chemicals to leach out of the crumb rubber base of synthetic turf, which is made of recycled tires. These leached chemicals are known to cause cell death in humans.

Synthetic turf, like other artificial surfaces including asphalt and pavement, heats up by several degrees more than living lawns.

According to Kelly Turner, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation’s Heat Equity Initiative, the material can trap heat and radiate it back slowly, staying warm for longer periods of time.

“It is one of the hottest surface materials,” she said. “It is hotter than asphalt.”

Janet Hartin, horticulture expert at UC Extension in Los Angeles County, measured various types of surfaces in Palm Springs, where air temperatures around 100˚F are common during the summer. 

On days around 100˚F or more, she reported temperatures of synthetic turf and other artificial substances around 175˚F.

Alternative approaches

Hartin said the best alternative to any artificial surfaces are living plants.

“We want to increase the population of our habitat pollinators, and plant climate-resilient plants that provide shade, buffer sun exposure, provide windbreaks, help reduce stormwater runoff and reduce soil and water erosion. And you can’t do that with synthetic grass,” she said.

There are several drought-friendly approaches to landscaping, including warm-season grasses such as Bermuda grass and Buffalo grass, or doing away with grass altogether and planting trees or drought-resilient varieties of plants that are endemic to California.

Hartin said that even though plants require water and maintenance, their cooling benefits and ecosystem benefits go far beyond the water savings one could get through synthetic turf.

“You have choices,” she said. “What we plant today is going to maximize society and urban ecosystem benefits by the time that you’re in your later years.”

Supported by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF), which works to ensure that people have access to the care they need, when they need it, at a price they can afford. Visit www.chcf.org to learn more.

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