Sunday, June 30, 2013

AZ's Slant on Sunday - Terror of Turf

I've had this topic in draft mode for well over a year and a half. I figured it was time to fully unleash on the topic after another former baseball player--former Phillies and Marlins catcher Darren Daulton--had been diagnosed with brain tumors. There is a link to his case, and it's a serious link.

When I first drafted this topic, I had just finished watching a feature of the 1980 World Series on the MLB Network. Since I'm from Philadelphia myself, I know by fact that four men who participated in that Series had fallen ill and died from brain cancer; the four men were Tug McGraw, Dan Quisenberry, John Vukovich, and [another Royal who didn't pitch in the series] Ken Brett. Now, if it was only one man who had passed away from this ailment, you would consider it to be a tragedy and go through the motions. However, I just named four men who played baseball in the same era, and both teams played in a ballpark that contained a common item: artificial turf (in this case, AstroTurf). Coincidence?

Back in the 1960's, artificial turf such as AstroTurf was all the rage. It was durable, it hardly required maintenance, and it was cheap. Many sports stadiums around the country (not just baseball) installed the artificial turf to save costs not only on grass maintenance, but on long-term care due to durability. While it had more cushion than standard grass and prevented hard-landing injuries, it handled sunlight differently and could--in many cases--burn an athlete's skin. Imagine being an outfielder and you have to make a diving catch in the middle of August.
Mordor, ladies and gentlemen.
Despite this minor setback, artificial turf was a common sight to see at many stadiums throughout the 1970's until the mid-2000's. It was a great display of technology and efficiency; however...there was a major dark side to the use of artificial turf before more advances in technology cleaned up the materials.

Do we know what this is?

This is lead.

If you know science, it doesn't take a lot of this to make a human or an animal sick. This element in a large enough amount can destroy the nervous system and cause disorders in the brain.

This could be found in AstroTurf.

Lovely, yes? As I mentioned above, this can cause massive problems in the brain. Due to great exposure of the turf, especially in different kinds of weather and other forms of activity, it isn't a coincidence that there have been numerous deaths of baseball players who have A) Played on AstroTurf at some point in their careers, and B) Had found brain tumors while in their 50's. [Note: Quisenberry, whom I mentioned above, is an exception. He succumbed to cancer at the age of 45.] The element had enough time to settle in and cause problems once certain parts of the body begin to phase out due to old age.

Aside from lead, there have also been more toxic elements found in the turf that could cause nerve and cardiovascular damage, such as zinc (in exponentially large amounts, of course), cadmium, chromium, and arsenic. Yes. Arsenic. Whenever it rains or is incredibly windy, these components can hit the lungs and settle in the body, and Heaven help you if you already have a preexisting health condition such as asthma. Drainage from the stadiums after rain could also get into the sewer system and mess with the water supply in various cities. Although an extreme scenario, it is a completely plausible one. What could be an issue on the field could bleed into a home issue, ruining residential homes and hurt common citizens. Birth defects? Lead poisoning? All could be completely possible.

With this revealed, the big question is this: Why on EARTH was this used in the first place?

Were we that stupid, or did we just not know how dangerous this stuff was? In this case, it was a "trial and error" at the expense of athletes later on in their lives. In a post-war era, this was an: "Oh my goodness, we just made something that will pay for itself. Let's throw it out there," kind of thing. If you ever saw those 1950's reels showing the "Kitchen of the Future," you could understand why something like this was so big, regardless of what materials were being used for the product. If it worked, it worked. While it was a great invention that saved a lot of money, it wasn't exactly the safest and healthiest thing manufactured [to compare it to a current issue, think of the whole "GMO" debacle if you're a foodie]. Since we know a lot more about particular materials and the effects it has on the human body, developers are a lot more cautious as to what they use in products that require a lot of usage and durability. Many athletes have suffered for this innovation, but if it weren't for their suffering--for the lack of a more honorable term--we wouldn't realize the dangers of the artificial turf that was used from the 1960's until the late 1990's.

Although there have been great advances in science to perfect the composition of artificial turf, it is still a controversial product, as all but two MLB ballparks play on natural grass. The two fields--Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg [Tampa Bay Rays] and the Rogers' Centre in Toronto [Blue Jays]--use a turf called FieldTurf, which is more rubber-based. Other forms of turf are being derived from plastics, and while there is still some concern and controversy with the kinds of turf fibers, it is in high demand in countries that are unable to grow large amounts of grass in their climate. Most of these countries request this material for their soccer fields. This is understandable, and economically speaking, could prove to be a better resort than attempting to grow exorbitant amounts of grass and not be able to take care of it as well as other countries could.

Unfortunately, we could see more athletes that could suffer the same problem as many before them due to the terrors of turf in the near future. Whether there will be faster diagnosis and treatment for these possible cases that will develop before that time, we can't be sure of that. While we should embrace innovation and technology, there always comes a price to these things.


For more information, these are the sources I checked out for this piece: (1, 2, 3, 4)