Exercise, physical education and recreation are integral elements of student life at schools and universities, and many institutions are devoting additional resources to recreational spaces.

One upgrade that many schools and universities have pursued is the installation of synthetic turf fields. More than 1,000 synthetic-turf fields are installed in the United States each year, according to the Synthetic Turf Council, which supports the industry. The appeal of such fields to cash-strapped education institutions is clear. The synthetic turf can be used more frequently and in more weather conditions than natural turf. The council says the surfaces can be used year round 3,000 hours per year with no damage. In contrast, it says, natural turf fields become unplayable after 680 to 816 hours, and usually are not available for part of the year.

“For schools with sufficient land, it would take three or four natural fields to withstand the usage of one synthetic turf field,” the council says.

In addition, the council asserts, natural turf fields require more maintenance — about 70,000 gallons for irrigation water each week, 15 to 20 pounds of fertilizer a year per 1,000 square feet of turf, plus herbicides, pesticides and regular mowing. Some 25 million used auto tires are recycled each year to provide the material used as infill for synthetic turf fields.

Some parents and health advocates have raised concerns about the safety of those tiny bits of ground-up rubber tires, known as crumb rubber, that are used as infill. They worry that children using the fields may be exposed to potentially harmful chemicals.

The Synthetic Turf Council says those fears are unfounded and points to studies that it says “provide compelling evidence of the safety of synthetic turf and crumb rubber.”

“In more than 40 years of usage under EPA oversight and OSHA-regulated manufacturing, no one has ever reported ill effects related to any materials used in synthetic turf,” the council's president, Rick Doyle, said in a May 2009 statement.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) looked at the pros and cons of natural and synthetic fields in a 2008 report. The NJEA says districts deciding on which type of field should weigh “cradle-to-grave” costs including field preparation, installation, maintenance and repair, and disposal. It notes that natural turf fields require personnel and equipment for mowing, watering, fertilizing and pesticide application; and artificial turf fields need personnel and equipment for dragging the field, adding or redistributing infill, and cleaning or repairing the field. Some maintenance staff may have to be retrained to work on artificial turf.

A regularly maintained synthetic turf field usually lasts up to 10 years, the NJEA says, and a properly installed and maintained natural grass field is viable for about 15 years.

One drawback of synthetic turf is that it absorbs heat and in extreme temperatures can become too hot to play on. Watering the surface can cool the surface, but the relief is only temporary.

“Because of the potential for high temperatures on infilled synthetic turf fields, it is important that people who play or work on the fields be provided with adequate warnings regarding the potential for heat stress,” says a fact sheet from the New York State Health Department. “People should also be advised to remain hydrated and to seek relief from the heat in shaded areas.”

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