Philly Inquirer: Field of Dread

CaptainLaddie

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Fans screamed and howled and cried, and Phillies players and coaches celebrated atop blades of artificial grass that had been pioneered by a Missouri chemical company called Monsanto.

The company marketed its turf to professional sports teams, high schools, and colleges as a cheaper, more durable alternative to natural grass.

Decades after the final out of the 1980 World Series was recorded, McGraw, Vukovich, Brett, and Quisenberry had all died from brain cancer.

They weren’t the only ones: In all, six former Phillies have reportedly been felled by glioblastoma — a particularly aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer — including former catcher Darren Daulton and former relief pitcher David West, who died in 2022.

The rate of brain cancer among Phillies who played at the Vet between 1971 and 2003 is about three times the average rate among adult men.

After West’s death, at age 57, The Inquirer decided to test the Vet’s turf. Athletes had dreaded playing on the surface, which was notorious for causing serious knee and ankle injuries. Through eBay, the newspaper purchased four souvenir samples of the fake grass that had blanketed the stadium’s field from 1977 to 1981. The team gave away the green keepsakes to thousands of fans in 1982, in 4-by-4-inch sealed plastic bags labeled “Official Turf of Champions.”

Tests run on two of the samples by Eurofins Lancaster Laboratories Environmental Testing found the turf contained 16 different types of PFAS, or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances — so-called “forever chemicals,” which the EPA has said cause “adverse health effects that can devastate families.”

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame tested two other samples, and also found PFAS.

The lab findings come at a time of rising alarm across the United States about the pervasiveness of forever chemicals in an array of products, from turf and nonstick cookware to firefighting gear and food packaging. Few of the estimated 12,000 PFAS have been extensively studied. Since experts have only been aware since 2019 that PFAS was in artificial turf, no studies have yet been done to determine whether athletes’ exposure could be linked to cancer.

Eurofins tested the 40-plus-year-old Vet turf for 70 different PFAS compounds. Sixteen were found. Two of those 16 were perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), the most widely studied of the chemicals and considered the most perilous, and the subject of lawsuits across the country.

Concentrations of PFOS and PFOA in the Vet samples were 5.4 and 12 parts per trillion.

Although these levels of contamination in drinking water would be alarming, less is known about the potential danger of playing on artificial turf where the toxic chemicals are inhaled or transmitted through chronic skin contact. Even so, several toxicologists who are conducting extensive PFAS studies said the Vet turf findings were concerning and problematic.
The artificial turf presented challenges. When rain fell, enormous puddles gathered on the field and had to be mopped up by a Zamboni. Balls hit into the outfield bounced off the turf and over the walls for ground-rule doubles so often that the Phillies had to raise the fences four feet. Underneath the fake grass was just a thin layer of padding, then blacktop.

“It was like playing on concrete,” recalled Bob Boone, a Phillies catcher from 1972 to 1981.

And unlike grass, the artificial carpet trapped heat, especially during summer day games. The blades of plastic grass were practically cooking; temperature gauges recorded figures that regularly soared above 100 degrees, and sometimes reached 165 degrees, releasing toxic vapors that could be inhaled.

As a catcher, Boone spent most of the game crouched over dirt, which was cooler. He remembers outfielders and infielders, though, whose metal cleats burned while they were on the field at the Vet.

“In the dugout, the team put boxes with ice on the stairs leading up to the clubhouse,” Boone said. “I’d come in and see guys standing with their feet in the boxes. I used to spend my day laughing at them: ‘Getting hot out there?’ ”

Some scientists are now sounding the alarm because artificial grass typically contains PFAS, nicknamed “forever chemicals."

Artificial turf carpeted other multipurpose municipal stadiums, similar to the Vet, that were built in the ‘60s and ‘70s in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.

Bowa remembers watching someone crack an egg on the turf in St. Louis’ Busch Memorial Stadium before a Sunday afternoon game in the 1970s.

“The egg,” he said, “fried on the turf.”

“You could see it from the stands, the heat coming off from the turf,” said Bobby Brett, who watched his brothers, George and Ken, play for the Royals in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, which also used artificial turf.

Baseball players, meanwhile, complained of back, knee, and foot injuries that they developed from spending so much time on the unforgiving surface. Some discovered wounds on their arms after they dove for a ball. Turf burns, Bowa called them.
It gets so much worse.
 
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simplicio

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Omar's Wacky Neighbor

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I don't know if they did testing, or a recall notice came out, but about 10 years ago, our HS totally closed off its main varsity artificial turf field without warning, literally a few days before our big annual club lax festival (we were left scrambling, but Tuna's brother came thru and got us his namesake complex a few towns away). Like, signage to keep off, yellow police tape around the perimeter, and everything.

Most of us figured it was the granulated tires used as cushion deep in the 'turf', turned out that the permanent field paint they used was the issue.
 

wiffleballhero

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the granulated tires
I'd bet a fair amount that in the next decade or so, this issue is going to explode as a public health problem. It is already starting and as these fields reach a critical mass nationally, we'll be screwed.

I have noticed that some of the companies now have things like cork fill to, presumably, reduce the carcinogenicity, but wow. Watch out. The old style turf never really caught on the way field turf has -- every suburb in a cold, wet climate or an arid one has one of these fields now.

(I'm aware that Boston and some other locations in New England are stopping these fields from going in, but that is, like lots of things, a case where New England is ahead of the curve.)
 

InstaFace

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I can't read the article, but does it go into how modern installations will be of 3rd or 4th generation field turf (made by like 20 different companies) and whether the turf of the late 70s was noticeably worse?

If yes, then this is "just" a tragedy; if not, of course, it's a public health emergency.
 

Humphrey

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Other than for cause/liability issues, studying Astroturf from the 70s/80s* is pretty counterproductive. Even some of the Field Turfs that got installed at the turn of the century are so different from the current product.

The modern product has issues (disposal of worn out fields being the primary); but in N.E. for sporting events; isn't going anywhere.

I always wondered about the soccer goalie thing; I mean, doesn't your average football lineman roll around on the rug more than a soccer goalkeeper? Haven't heard of any problems with that set of people.

* Everyone who got cancer played on that version of the turf; no one who played later had a problem? What about Pittsburgh/Montreal/St. Louis/Houston/Toronto?
 

Max Power

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Gary Carter played in Montreal and died of a brain tumor. As did Dick Howser who managed the Royals when they had artificial turf. I don't know if there's a control group of baseball players who had brain tumors who never played their home games on turf in the 70s and 80s.
 

Hoya81

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Studying NL East players over the period from 1970-1990 would probably be a good starting point. 4 out of the 6 stadiums had turf for most of the era, so around 110-120 games worth of exposure.