Along with potential benefits, athletic turf poses possible hazards


In 2007, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) accepted an anonymous $2.6 million donation to install new synthetic turf fields at both Gunn and Palo Alto High Schools.

The contractor hired to install the fields, O.C. Jones and Sons, used a synthetic grass called Duraspine, which was manufactured by the French-Canadian company FieldTurf. The City of Palo Alto’s 2011 Artificial Turf Factsheet states that the Duraspine carpet consists of a crushed rock base below a rubber weed barrier. The weed barrier is then covered in silica sand and recycled rubber particles. The grass itself is made of a polyethylene, a plastic commonly found in water bottles and packaging.

A New Jersey Advanced Media investigation found that the Duraspine product used in the Gunn and Paly fields deteriorates up to five times faster than advertised. The investigation claimed that Duraspine was not properly manufactured to withstand UV radiation, causing the surface to deteriorate more quickly. The report asserted that company officials first realized the defect a full year before the sale of Duraspine to PAUSD, though they never revealed any information on the turf’s premature deterioration. “From the first signs of trouble in 2006 until sales of the brand ended in 2012, FieldTurf officials never changed their sales pitch,” the report said.

Despite knowing of the defects, former FieldTurf CEO John Gilman lauded Duraspine’s resilience to wear in a 2006 sales pitch. “We anticipate that a mono-surface will have a useful life longer than 10 years,” Gilman said.

According to then Chief Business Official Bob Golton, the district was unaware of these defects when it purchased Duraspine turf. “When our fields were installed, there were no concerns about FieldTurf,” he said. “We are [now] fully aware of the concerns and litigation that have arisen in the last several years.”

PAUSD is not the only district being affected by Duraspine’s shortcomings. FieldTurf maintains that Duraspine has been sold to clients in over 1100 athletic fields worldwide, including 283 fields in California. Since 2007, 15 lawsuits in six different states have been filed against the Fieldturf, according to a Truth in Advertising report.

O.C. Jones and Sons Estimates Manager Greg Souder said that FieldTurf is still one of the largest suppliers of artificial grass in the Bay Area. “The FieldTurf guys usually act as a subcontractor for us,” Souder said. “And there’s probably a 90 percent chance that they’re the ones who did it for a given school.”

According to Souder, O.C. Jones and Sons had FieldTurf lay its own artificial grass independently while O.C. Jones worked on drainage and excavation. “It comes out basically like carpet in your house,” he said. “They then roll [the Duraspine] out together in a lawn.”

Athletic Director Curtis Johansen says that the rubber infill and plastic grass detached from the carpet tends to cling to athletes’ clothing. “It comes off the shoes and over the socks,” he said. “Football or soccer are affected by it because soccer slides a lot. [The infill is] kind of like dirt, but since it’s not natural, it will stick a bit.”

Despite these drawbacks, some athletes still prefer Gunn’s artificial turf over natural grass. Freshman soccer player Scott Hwang says that loose rubber infill does not do much to affect his performance. “It’s not really dangerous to play on turf,” he said. “[It’s] more likely to have an irritating cut, but bumpy grass can lead to more [serious] in-game injury.”

Hwang believes that loose turf can still cause rare, albeit minor, injuries like turf burns on knees. “[Turf burns] are basically shallow scrapes that bleed,” he said. “Once, a ref said a player had to leave the field because of a bloody one, but that almost never happens.”

Johansen agrees with Hwang, believing that Gunn’s use of synthetic grass was still the right decision. “The main reason why they would install it at any school if you have heavy use like in P.E.,” he said. “During the day, in sports after school and with rentals on weekends—that’s another big component. After our sports teams are done on Saturdays and Sundays, it’s important that the field doesn’t turn to mush.”

Golton says that both Gunn and Paly athletic fields are to be replaced in coming years using different artificial grass products. “Artificial turf fields generally have a life cycle of 10-12 years,” he said. “The industry has moved on and the materials will be different.”