A Turf War on Bacteria?

Sports field tests at MU may curtail athlete infections

Student and professional athletes seem to get more and more serious infections from their bumps and bruises. Is it the grass?

Brad FresenburgBrad Fresenburg, Extension and Research Associate in Plant Sciences

Scientists at the University of Missouri are testing different brands of artificial turf to study the effects of heat and bacterial growth on the surfaces, which are widely used on high school, college and professional sports fields.

Led by Brad Fresenburg, an extension and research associate in plant sciences at the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, the research team will try to determine whether bacteria can exist in the surfaces, where, once it mixes with athletes’ bodily fluids, can cause infection.

“It has not been documented whether players get the staph infection from a synthetic field or whether they had an open wound from the synthetic field and went into the locker room and were infected there,” Fresenburg said. “We know that locker rooms and other places tend to harbor those bacteria as well.”

The researchers also hope to answer questions about heat, including whether putting water on the artificial surface will increase humidity that, in turn, could raise the heat index on the field. Tests by Fresenburg and other turf management specialists have found that artificial surfaces can be 60 to 70 degrees hotter than grass surfaces. “Syringing” — injecting water into the turf — has been found to help “to some degree,” he said.

The plots — 15-by-20-foot sections of five popular brands of artificial turf — were installed in June. Three companies in Missouri and Illinois donated the turfs and other materials, including gravel, sand, crumb rubber from ground tires and installed the plots. The synthetic turfs will be compared to natural Bermuda grass that grows adjacent to the fields.

Staph InfectionStaph Infection

Some temperature data were gathered the first two weeks in August, Fresenburg said, but plans to syringe the plots this fall have been put on hold because of the relatively cool temperatures until next summer.

Fresenburg said the team will begin studying bacterial growth and the conditions that could potentially cause it to thrive next spring. “We will try to inoculate the various plots under different conditions,” he said. “Then we will swab the surfaces and watch to see if the bacteria will grow in petri dishes. This will give us some indication whether it will survive.”

The test plots will also be used to educate students and future sports-turf specialists. Also as a part of extension outreach, the researchers will use the plots at various field days to demonstrate how to maintain and clean artificial surfaces.

“In my mind, there is a significant amount of maintenance that still needs to be applied to a synthetic field that often is not followed,” Fresenburg said. “We want to establish what those needs are and how to go about it.”