Feature Article - February 2008
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Solid Ground

Ensuring Turf Is Tough Enough

By Sue Marquette Poremba

Healthy Fields, Healthy Players

As the popularity of synthetic turf continues to rise, so will the risk of staph infections.

"Synthetic turf is a contact point for infections," said Dr. Rod Walters, former director of sports medicine at the University of South Carolina and now a consultant with a synthetic turf manufacturer. "Natural grass isn't as much of a problem."

Walters cited research that looked at staph bacteria on different surfaces: terry cotton (like terry-cloth robes), 100 percent cotton, 60-40 cotton blends, polyester and polypropylene. The bacteria lived the longest on the polyester and polypropylene, the two totally artificial surfaces and materials used to make synthetic grass. Many sports uniforms are made from polyester, as well.

In addition, because of their close contact, athletes are among the groups most at risk to develop a staph infection. "One out of every four people are carrying staph," Walters said. "If a kid has an open wound, he is more susceptible to share or pick up germs."

While it isn't possible to completely prevent a staph infection, there are ways to minimize the risk. First and foremost, Walters explained, athletes should practice good hygiene. Secondly, they should avoid sharing items like towels, water bottles and sports gear. Even a simple fist bump can spread the infection. Because open wounds help spread the bacteria, cuts and scrapes should be cleaned and covered before participating in any sports-related activity. Coaches and adults should also be alert to someone with an abscess, boils or a rash, as these can be signs of a staph infection.

Grounds crews can also do their part to lower the risk of staph infection. If having natural grass isn't a viable option, there are now antimicrobial treatments available that lessen the bacteria's ability to cling to the synthetic materials.

"The material of the turf doesn't cause infection," said Jon Pritchett, "but it can carry it from person to material."

While natural grass is generally safe when it comes to bacteria, sand used on playing surfaces or outdoor volleyball courts can carry germs, according to Judi Nelson a spokesperson for a sand-cleaner manufacturer. Mechanical screening mitigates this problem by lifting the sand and sifting it through oscillating screens. This has a multiple sanitizing effect:

  • Debris such as rotting seaweed, food waste and animal droppings is screened out of the sand, rather than left to deteriorate and provide a fertile ground for bacteria growth. It's critical to do a very thorough job of screening this dangerous debris out by screening rather than merely raking or manually picking up trash.
  • As the sand is sifted, it is fluffed, aerated and further dried, again reducing favorable conditions or growth of bacteria, which thrive in dark and damp conditions.
  • As the sand is sifted, it is turned and exposed to the sun's purifying ultraviolet rays. It is well known that ultraviolet radiation is probably the most effective and safest way to destroy dangerous bacteria.

Staph infections spread swiftly and can be deadly. Proper hygiene, caring for wounds and keeping facilities and equipment clean and protected are the best defenses.