Across South Florida, natural grass fields are being ripped up to make way for multimillion-dollar artificial turf installations that have drawn ire from residents who say the synthetic surfaces pose health risks and will pollute their communities.
Last month, one of the latest turf projects — which gave the City of Aventura's baseball and soccer fields at Waterways Park a "fresh new look" with artificial turf — elicited a cascade of criticism from local parents and community members.
"So disappointing to live in a city with such great weather with no need for artificial grass, and yet we are using it anyway and ignoring the health risks it poses to humans and wildlife," one critic said on Instagram. "For what?"
On the heels of Waterways Park's recent reopening with artificial turf, the city is moving forward with another turf project at Founders Park — an already contentious site where a community garden was just torn out and relocated to make room for new pickleball courts, sparking residents' outrage. Fake turf's propensity to heat up under the sun is prompting worries that space will no longer be an idyllic spot for family gatherings.
"Mind you [Founder's Park North] is a favorite family park whose field is always filled with kids and families — that isn't just a field on which residents practice sport," resident Alice Bonvicini tells New Times. "Many kids play there, babies crawl and walk there. Not sure how they are expected they do that on hot plastic grass, a real disaster and a slap in the face of many local families who enjoy this park."
Last September, the city awarded a more than $2 million contract to FieldTurf USA for the Waterways Park field improvement project. According to the company's project proposal, it was offering the "FieldTurf XT-50 2" two-layer infill turf system with sand and ambient rubber. (FieldTurf's website describes ambient rubber as an "environment, cost-efficient, and durable solution that has withstood the test of time.")
Evan Ross, Aventura communications director, tells New Times the new FieldTurf has been met with "overwhelmingly positive feedback" from those who played on it at Waterways Park. He says one parent, who has two sons playing in an Aventura travel soccer league, relayed to him that the new turf is "consistent and reliable" and was a welcome change for coaches and players.
Aventura maintains the turf will help keep the field open seven days a week, cut down on maintenance costs, and eliminate the use of fertilizers and pesticides. According to Ross, the installation could help reduce chemical runoff into local waterways.
"Aventura loves to lead and innovate, but in this case, we are following the lead of countless entities that have successfully installed and utilized FieldTurf," Ross says. The fields at Cooper City Flamingo West Park use FieldTurf products, and high school football powerhouses St. Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal Gibbons also play on it, according to the company's website.
The city maintains that the claim that FieldTurf poses health risks is not backed by scientific studies.
In an email, Aventura city manager Ronald Wasson said that the contract with FieldTurf is still being worked out for the Founders Park project. The company proposes installing the fake grass for more than $1.5 million.
Meanwhile, a protest is planned by a group of Protect Founders Park South residents on September 5 to save the natural grass fields at the park.
"The environmental barometer of the city is broken," resident Ariel Penzer tells New Times. "The field of the park that sits across the street from Founders Park South will be stripped of its natural grass from its beautiful field and the implementation of artificial turf. Exactly what our kids need — a material that becomes dangerously hot in the Florida heat and is connected to increased injuries in children who practice sports on it."
Kyla Bennett, an ecologist who worked as an enforcement officer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), tells New Times it is "absolutely outrageous" that a South Florida municipality would replace natural grass fields with plastic turf considering the health implications, the environmental impacts, and the fact that extreme Florida heat and constant rainfall will make it a harsh spot for play and recreation. She contends Florida is the "worst place" to put artificial turf and that it will shed "hundreds of pounds of microplastics into the adjacent water and soil."
"You are literally laying down acres of plastic, which means that you are destroying that habitat, that soil for any kind of insect life or wildlife," says Bennett, New England director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and PEER's director of science policy. "It's worse than putting pavement down. It is creating a heat island, particularly in warm places like the south."
As more and more cities around the country pull out natural grass and replace it with synthetic turf to cut maintenance costs and provide durable fields, environmentalists have raised concerns about contaminants and chemicals in the material. A 2015 study by Gaboury Benoit, a professor of environmental chemistry and engineering at Yale University, found 96 chemicals, including possible carcinogens, in the rubber pieces in artificial turf fields. Other studies have found the presence of heavy metals.
Although the EPA maintains that studies indicate no elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb rubber, it admits the existing studies "have been limited."
As a result, the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a collaborative research effort to assess potential human exposure and characterize the chemicals in tire crumb rubber. In 2019, the EPA stated "in general, the findings from the report support the premise that while chemicals are present as expected in the tire crumb rubber, human exposure appears to be limited based on what is released into air or simulated biological fluids."
Concerns about the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in artificial turf have also been raised. Known as "forever chemicals" used in countless consumer products, from nonstick pans to carpet coating, they do not break down in the human body or the environment. The compounds were the subject of a March 2023 Philadelphia Inquirer report that examined an elevated brain cancer rate among former Phillies players who played on artificial turf at the team's prior ballpark.
FieldTurf says a lab it hired in 2019 to test its synthetic turf for 30 PFA compounds did not detect the chemicals above the lab's minimum reporting threshold.
"With no need for pesticides, line painting, or chemicals for maintenance, synthetic turf helps protect the broader community’s health by reducing the need for products containing harsh ingredients or volatile compounds, reducing the potential for spillover of these compounds into surrounding neighborhoods, ecosystems, or habitats," the company says in its marketing materials.
FieldTurf, the synthetic turf division of Tarkett Sports, dubs itself a leading provider of artificial turf. The company has worked with more than 1,500 colleges and 11 NFL teams to install their products, including the New York Giants and New York Jets at Met Life Stadium and the Detroit Lions' Ford Field, according to its website.
The company's proposals for Aventura indicate the turf features slit-film fibers, which NFL players have criticized over its increased injury risk. In a November 2022 letter, NFL Player Association president J.C. Tretter urged the league to ban all slit-film turf, arguing that it has led to a rise in-game rates and no-contact, lower extremity injuries.
MetLife Stadium later announced it was changing its playing surface. Then-Giants safety Julian Love confirmed the change, saying, "Stats have shown that we are one of the worst fields in the league." FieldTurf installed its new CORE system at the stadium for the upcoming NFL season, a multi-layer dual polymer monofilament fiber rather than the previous slit-film design.
Miami's newest superstar Lionel Messi said he had no problem playing on artificial turf after rumors circulated that he would only play in games with natural grass as he moved to Major League Soccer.
Bennett points out that the extreme heat here in South Florida at times will make it difficult for children to step foot on the field. She notes that in Massachusetts, where she lives, the high schools have a policy that students aren't allowed on the field if it is too hot outside. She fears there will be more cases of people suffering heat stroke and skin burns, which have been documented in kids playing on artificial turf.
Aventura isn't the only municipality embracing artificial turf. North Miami Beach is working with FieldTurf to build synthetic turf at Mishcon Park field.
In June, Surfside passed an ordinance allowing synthetic turf to count towards the town's front lawn landscaping requirement, particularly living material. In light of drainage issues tied to synthetic turf, residents worried about whether the change would exacerbate flooding in the town.
In Aventura, Michael Jacobs, a volunteer commissioner of the city's adult softball league, says drainage is not an issue with the new turf installation at Waterways Park.
"It poured for 15 minutes, and we were able to resume play 90 seconds later because of how fast the new field drains. The old field would've been unusable for the rest of the day," Jacobs says.
Surfside Commissioner Marianne Meischeid remains unswayed, however.
"We're supposed to be going green, looking toward the environment, and looking at climate change," Meischeid said. "Now, we are turning synthetic turf into living material. I don't get it."