Among the various concerns about the safety of using synthetic turf surfaces for sporting fields have been a number of reports linking staph infections with the artificial surface. Although there have been no definitive evidence one way or the other the stories and fears have been perpetuated in the media until there is an over-riding acceptance that there is a link.

A recent study released by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences has found that the staphylococcus aureus bacteria do not survive in a synthetic turf environment. The results of this study should allay the fear that people have had where they believed getting an abrasion injury on the artificial surface would lead to a staph infection because of possible bacteria in the field.

Staphylococcus Aureus

The Staphylococcus Aureus bacterium commonly found anywhere that a human is or has been. It lives harmlessly on the skin or in the nasal passages. It is when it is introduced into the body through cuts or incisions that infection can occur and this infection may be life threatening.

A strain of the bacterium has developed a resistance to the synthetic penicillin antibiotic that is typically used to treat a staph infection. That strain is known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). It is this strain that is responsible for the majority of skin infections contracted by sportsmen and women that require emergency room treatment.

Synthetic Turf Does Not Harbor Staphylococcus Aureus

The study that was conducted by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences consisted of 20 infilled synthetic turf fields situated in a variety of locations in Pennsylvania. These locations included both indoor and outdoor fields. The study found no trace of staphylococcus aureus bacterium in any of the fields.

The study went further, identifying the level of microbial colonies across all of the synthetic turf fields and also included sample processing from a native soild and a sand-based natural turf athletic field. Sample swabs were also taken from other surfaces that are commonly used in a sporting field environment as well as individuals too.

The results showed that neither the synthetic turf playing fields nor the natural turf playing fields tested positive for the presence of S. aureus. Other surfaces such as human hands and faces, used towels and some training equipment did test positive.

Interesting Findings

There were a number of interesting findings to come out of the Penn State study. The most notable figures were the significantly higher number of colony forming units of the bacteria in natural grass compared to any of the synthetic turf samples. No colonies of S. aureus were found on any of the fields involved in the study.

One of the reasons given for the poor survival rate of bacteria in synthetic turf is actually one of the negative aspects quoted by many opponents – high temperature. The survival period of the S. aureus bacteria was very short in outdoor conditions and it appears that the exposure to ultraviolet light and higher temperature is a very effective method for eliminating it.

Further Insights

The author of the study is Andy McNitt who is an Associate Professor of Soil Science. He shared the following insights into his findings.

“These infilled systems are not a hospitable environment for microbial activity. They tend to be dry and exposed to outdoor temperatures, which fluctuate rapidly. Plus, the infill media itself (ground-up tires) contains zinc and sulfur, both of which are known to inhibit microbial growth. Considering the temperature range for growth of s. aureus is 7 to 48 degrees Celsius, we didn’t expect to find this bacterium in fields exposed to sunlight, since the temperatures on these fields frequently exceed 48 degrees.”

“The microbe population of natural turf grass far exceeds anything we’ve found in the infill systems,” McNitt says. “In fact, a number of the infill systems had zero living microbes in the sample at the time of testing.”

“Some other studies indicate that a player playing on synthetic turf may acquire more skin abrasions due to the abrasiveness of the surface,” McNitt says. “Thus, they have more entry points for the staph, but they’re not getting it from the field — they’re picking it up in the locker room or somewhere else. One study shows that players who shave their ankles prior to taping up, for instance, also have a greater incidence of staph because the shaving creates little nicks for infection to enter.”

Reference Material

For those interested in reading more about the study in question you should visit the link below. This is a copy of the entire study including the findings and discussion points. It should be of interest to anyone who has worries about letting their children or other family members play sport on artificial turf.

McNitt, A.S., D Petrunak, T Serensits. 2006. A Survey of Microbial Populations in Infilled Synethtic Turf Fields