There are many appealing reasons to install artificial turf on athletic fields that get a lot of use, which is why several high schools in South Jersey have done so.
The latest is Barnegat High School, which is installing a $1.4 million artificial turf system.
Compared to natural grass, artificial turf requires less maintenance, holds up in bad weather and can be used nonstop. It also requires less preparation by facility workers prior to a game.
Barnegat’s grass field had poor drainage and rain turned it into a bog. Games had to be moved, postponed or played in mud.
The school considered fixing the drainage problem and restoring the grass field, and decided to switch to artificial turf instead.
Other area schools that have changed to artificial turf include Atlantic City, Bridgeton, Egg Harbor Township, Ocean City, Pleasantville, St. Augustine Prep and Vineland.
The advantages for athletic programs are substantial and probably worth the cost. Schools that use artificial turf, however, must remain aware of its increased risk of athletic injuries and take steps to minimize them for students and other users.
The general consensus that injuries are more frequent and more severe on artificial turf was supported by two studies last year.
A study published in Innovations in Orthopaedics in August found athletes were 58% more likely to sustain an injury during athletic activity on artificial turf.
The data from 26 high schools during the 2017-18 season showed injury rates were significantly higher for football, girls and boys soccer, and rugby athletes. There was also a higher incidence of lower extremity, upper extremity and torso injuries on artificial turf.
The study was conducted by physician-researchers from University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University and the UH Sports Medicine Institute.
They said it showed the need to educate high school athletes on the importance of having the right shoes and cleats, and for schools to maintain the turf “to the appropriate quality to reduce injury risk.”
Another study, published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine last spring, looked at the effect of various amounts of infill materials (by weight) put under artificial turf to cushion impacts.
It found that where 6 pounds or more of infill was used per square foot, there were significantly fewer substantial injuries and total injuries than on fields with less than 6 pounds of infill per square foot.
The lighter infill resulted in more concussions, shoe-surface interaction during contact trauma, surface impacts, muscle-tendon overload, cleat design influence, adverse weather trauma and lower extremity injuries.
Schools that want the advantages of artificial turf fields must also accept the responsibility to understand their increased risks and do what they can to reduce them. At the very least as these studies show, that means ensuring a sufficient amount of cushioning infill under the artificial surface and making sure athletes have the appropriate shoes and cleats for that surface.