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Artificial Turf Is Tearing Towns Apart

The PFAS in playing fields—and the open question of what they might do to kids—is turning into a culture war.

Children kick soccer balls on artificial turf.
Sandy Huffaker for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Kids engage in drills during a soccer practice on artificial turf at the 4S Ranch Sports Park in San Diego, California, on November 12, 2023.

There are no political yard signs here, people in Rye used to say, describing the comity of this idyllic suburban community just outside New York City. Some people vote Republican, and some vote Democrat, but the denizens of Rye have historically tended to eschew any statements or discussion that could be divisive. In fact, yard signs were banned by local zoning regulations until the rules were challenged by the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2008. Risking political friction with neighbors just isn’t part of the culture, one longtime resident told me.

Or at least, it wasn’t. Until the “turf war.”

One issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor, inspired yard signs, and led citizens, whether in heated City Council meetings or on social media, to impugn one another’s good intentions and concern for the well-being of the young. That issue is not migrants, gender-neutral bathrooms, or critical race theory. It’s the soccer field.

If your kid plays soccer, as mine does, no matter where you live, the woes of Rye’s Nursery Field may be familiar. The grass has not been well maintained. The field floods easily, causing practices and games to be canceled. In 2019, a group of donors involved in local youth sports, fed up, offered to raise $3 million to install an artificial turf field.

On May 1, despite a pending lawsuit by residents opposed to the plan, the City Council voted—with some caveats—to move ahead with idea, after five years of bitter fighting.  Rye’s turf war is a cautionary tale about what happens when we neglect public goods: We enable culture wars with literally toxic outcomes, empowering Republicans and potentially swelling their base.

Advocates for artificial turf argue that kids need reliably playable, flat fields. Artificial fields, they note, don’t need mowing or watering and don’t get waterlogged in the rain.

But many Rye residents, as well as city agencies and environmental groups, have raised serious objections to the installation of artificial turf on a floodplain by a creek. Unlike grass, it won’t absorb water, which could worsen the neighborhood’s exposure to flooding during a time of climate crisis. Equally worrisome, synthetic turf contains highly toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS, as well as microplastics, which can scatter into neighboring waterways and soil, where they can take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down, wreaking havoc on animals, plants, and ecosystems in the meantime.

Artificial turf could have detrimental effects on the young people playing on it, as well: Research about whether playing on artificial turf raises players’ PFAS levels is still in its infancy. Both The Washington Post and The Guardian in March reported the results of a small study in which two out of three 6-year-olds had higher levels of PFAS on their hands after completing a practice on artificial turf in San Diego. The Environmental Protection Agency, even under Trump, acknowledged that PFAS are harmful to humans as well as to the rest of planetary life. They can pose dangers to the endocrine system, including the liver and thyroid, as well as the metabolism and the brain, according to the Massachusetts Toxics Use Reduction Institute at University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

But there may be other effects for players too. In a time of global warming, when we increasingly see children’s games canceled due to extreme heat, it’s relevant to note that turf creates heat islands that can increase the temperature of the field dramatically; artificial turf is about 37 degrees hotter than asphalt and 86.5 degrees hotter than natural grass. Playing on turf also increases the risk of injuries for players, which is why the NFL’s union—with the agreement of the vast majority of players—is pushing for grass throughout the league and why U.S. national teams have completely rejected artificial turf.

Properly maintaining a grass field requires more than simply mowing the lawn. It requires special grass and consultation with experts on how to plant and maintain a field that can withstand heavy play. Rebekah Thomson, who led a successful campaign to defeat an artificial turf field on Martha’s Vineyard, gave a presentation to the Rye City Council in March explaining that grass is resilient and that grass fields on the island are working well, citing similar experiences in other Massachusetts communities.  

Improving Nursery Field’s grass would take some investment and care. Yet artificial turf is extremely expensive, as well—more so, say, than the grass seeding, thatching, reseeding, mowing, aeration, and other maintenance required for natural turf. While Rye’s donor group is raising $3 million for turf that will be useless at the end of its life, Rebekah Thomson said in her presentation that it costs about $65,600 a year for Martha’s Vineyard to maintain all of its fields—8.6 acres—and that, she pointed out, is with an “island markup” (labor, shipping, and materials can cost more off the mainland).

Artificial turf, however, is the only solution that the Rye donor group, which calls itself Let the Kids Play, has been willing to fund. To explore the problem, the city hired a “consultant” with a long résumé of experience as a lobbyist for the artificial turf industry. Finding that the artificial turf field wasn’t being approved as quickly as a vocal group of residents would prefer, local Republicans late last year began mobilizing around the issue, calling themselves the “Rye-Publicans” and threatening to unseat city officials they view as a drag on this project, as The Rye Record has reported.

Similar controversies have raged around the country, with artificial turf hotly debated  in communities as varied as Washington Heights (in New York City); Ithaca, New York; Malden, Massachusetts; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Martha’s Vineyard. In some places, the issue has drawn even more vitriol than in otherwise decorous Rye. On Martha’s Vineyard, the fight over artificial turf raged for seven years, with some alleging threats of violence, shell casings left in a former health official’s briefcase, and one outspoken artificial turf opponent’s tires slashed, as WGBH Boston, a Boston public radio station, and other local outlets have reported. Supporters of a turf field in Malden refused to go on the record with WGBH, fearing personal attacks.

The artificial turf wars neatly mirror other grassroots controversies that are helping Republicans build power around the country. When public goods are neglected and allowed to deteriorate—which happens even in wealthy communities with many Democratic voters—dissatisfaction becomes a tinderbox, easily ignited and mobilized around a general call to “think of the children.” This dynamic was particularly visible in the far right’s successful politicization of parents unhappy over school closures during Covid. But it can also be seen in a broad constellation of other issues animating people across the usual political spectrum.

This playbook tends to exploit real problems, as Naomi Klein has documented in her recent book, Doppelganger: During the Covid pandemic, Klein writes, the Bannonite right welcomed liberal parents, embracing their concerns. Indeed, kids do need a place to play soccer! School closures did isolate children and exacerbate mental health problems. Our public spaces need more investment and care. And our urgent feelings around such issues, it turns out, turn easily to a reactionary resentment of science, the environment, public health, and anything associated with liberalism.

In the case of playing fields, some governments have settled the issue by banning artificial turf outright. Communities that have banned, severely restricted, or passed moratoriums on  the use of artificial turf include Boston; Millbrae, California; Westport, Connecticut; Sharon, Massachusetts; Wayland, Massachusetts; and Concord, Massachusetts.

Rye may yet follow suit. Lawsuits are expensive, and the one currently in progress could be joined by others. PFAS regulation is meanwhile proceeding at both the state and federal levels. New York state has banned PFAS in carpets and artificial turf starting in 2026 and is considering legislation to ban the installation of new artificial turf soccer fields.

It’s unclear, at this juncture, what will happen in Rye. The City Council, while approving the project, attached some conditions that may stop it from going through. One of these was language barring field material with PFAS. Researchers who have reviewed available turf on the market have found PFAS in 100 percent of them,  so that may prove a serious hurdle. And the possible state law could also pose problems, ranging from strengthening the residents’ lawsuit to making it impossible for Rye to replace its turf once it wears out.

The tone of the Rye City Council meeting I recently attended was congenial and neighborly. Compromises were struck by both sides, and the tone was largely respectful. A source told me it was the most courteous in years. But even if Rye’s civility recovers from this turf war, some damage may have already been done. The wacky and erroneous right-wing narrative that liberal environmentalists don’t care about our kids has gained traction in town, they say, empowering local Republicans. And if the turf field goes through, something even more toxic than these bad ideas will take up residence in the soil, water—and the bodies of the young athletes.