Miami-Dade Embraces Artificial Turf Soccer Fields Despite Cancer Worries

You'd think Miami would have no trouble keeping green grass on its soccer fields. There's more than ample sunlight, plenty of rain, and friendly temperatures year-round. So why is the county aggressively installing artificial turf in its parks — especially given mounting health concerns, including cancer risk and ligament damage, connected to the fake stuff?

The answer is money. Because artificial turf doesn't have to be rested, replanted, or maintained, it offers the county more bang for its buck, says Jorge Mora, chief of construction, design, and maintenance for county parks.

"They're not cheap to install, but you get a lot more value in terms of playability and the time of use, particularly at higher-use facilities," Mora tells New Times.   

Artificial turf had a terrible year in 2015. First, the U.S. Women's Soccer team launched an official protest before the World Cup in Canada, which hosted games on plastic surfaces. Star striker Abby Wambach called the fields "a nightmare," describing brutal "turf burns" from sliding challenges, roasting temperatures in the sun, and added wear-and-tear on players' joints. 

There are even more serious concerns, raised in part by the family of a former University of Miami star goalie. Austen Everett died in 2012 of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and after her death, her mother began investigating when she learned of three other goalies who had also fallen ill from cancer.

She's come to suspect that the tiny rubber bits used as cushioning in artificial grass fields contain dangerous carcinogens. "I realized, Oh my God, the thing that she loved most probably killed her," June Leahy told NBC News last October

Leahy's concerns have been echoed by a Seattle soccer coach who found dozens of ill players and sparked an NBC investigation last year.

But experts say there's no evidence of any long-term health risk from the artificial fields. "We've got 14 studies on our website that says we can find no negative health effects," Dr. Davis Lee, a member of the industry Synthetic Turf Council, told NBC.

Either way, Miami-Dade County has been embracing the synthetic fields. The first were installed about six years ago at the Kendall Soccer Park, a large complex that cannot have natural grass because it sits on a well site where pesticides aren't allowed to be used.  

Mora says the county found that the fields have a much higher upfront cost — about $1 million per soccer field, more than twice what a grass field costs. "But we realized that you save more than that in maintenance costs over time."

Six months ago, the county added artificial turf fields at Ives Estates Park thanks to a donation from the Orange Bowl; a field at Tropical Park was also switched to artificial turf. Next, the county plans to switch to fake grass at two Amelia Earhart fields. 

Mora says that he's aware of the concerns over cancer links and that the county is looking into using natural infill instead of the rubber bits in its new fields. But he says he hasn't heard any regular complaints from players about the surface — other than a predictable one in Miami.

"I do hear from some people that the artificial turf, especially the rubber granules, get really hot in Florida," Mora says. "I've heard of players not being able to go onto a field in August because the surface is just too hot."
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink