Game Planning MRSA: A Guide to Surviving Synthetic Turf
By Spencer Bigelow
Shhh! Can you hear that? If you listen carefully you can hear the faint voices of Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden ushering in the new football season. As the air turns crisp, the boys of summer march towards the gridiron, ready to compete on the grand stage. Amid this, the NFL, a multi-billion dollar industry, is noisier still, with stories of head trauma, domestic violence and drug abuse crowding the national airways. Yet, if you strain your ears further, really reaching now, an even nastier truth begins to rear its head. A story of a war being waged on a much smaller level, as Staphylococcus aureus, a small microbe, lurks below the surface, infecting the very ground the game is played on.
Since the 1960’s artificial turf has outcompeted natural grass, becoming the foundation of the game. Valued for the cushion it provides and its easy maintenance, turf is part polyethylene fibers and part crumb rubber, a form of recycled rubber gathered from used tires. This crumb rubber has a granular consistency and forms a “pack” mimicking dirt, the perfect environment for harboring Staphylococcus aureus.
So what exactly is Staphylococcus aureus or more commonly staph? Staph is a common bacterium that often lives harmlessly on the skin. Spread by close human contact, this bacterium comes in many different flavors, with effects ranging from minor soft tissue infections and food poisoning to more serious medical problems . Largely, this variability is due to a wide range of virulence factors or molecules produced by the pathogen that allow it to interact with and inhabit the host . As a result, Staph is able to colonize many disparate parts of the body, using these virulence factors as keys to gain access to different tissues .
Overall, staph is often a mildly annoying infection, nothing that can’t be overcome with the proper antibiotics. However, recently antibacterial resistant strains of staph, called MRSA, short for methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, have become more common. Among healthy people, MRSA often manifests as a painful skin boil, looking similar to a pimple . These bacteria enter the body via minor cuts and if left untreated, require surgical draining . Even still, the infections can penetrate deeper, infecting bones, joints, heart and lungs, often with fatal results . What’s worse, MRSA is resistant to the very drugs created to destroy it, making the only viable treatment a powerful antibiotic cocktail . Normally, MRSA infection is scarce among the general public but recently it has been proven to thrive in a different environment, artificial turf.
Scientists at Penn State have been investigating the exact reasons surrounding staph infestation of turf . Just like in real dirt, which contains multitudes of microbes, the synthetic rubber pack provides a hospitable environment capable of supporting MRSA due to its high moisture content . However, unlike real dirt, MRSA doesn’t have other microbes to compete with, allowing one single “super-microbe” to dominate.
In 2014, researchers at Vanderbilt set out to find just how likely an athlete playing on a turf field was to contract MRSA compared to the average citizen . The results were startling, as they proved that by stepping on the field, a competitor’s chances of acquiring MRSA doubled. In addition, the study found that results differ between contact and non-contact sports, meaning, football players are the most at risk .
These statistics become even more alarming when you realize that each day over 1 million athletes take to the field, practicing the sport they love. Little do they know that the abrasions ‘earned’ in a normal drill coupled with the contact persistent throughout the game offer the perfect festering ground for MRSA. Just ask the 2003 St. Louis Rams who had a staggering eight MRSA infections in a single season . Additionally, superstars like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have contracted the disease while college juggernauts like the Florida Gators and USC Trojans have as well . Unfortunately, the buck doesn’t stop there, as players who contract MRSA become carriers, capable of spreading the disease to the general public.
So then how can we stop the unstoppable, a microbe without a weakness? The answer is simple, prevention. The New England Journal of Medicine found that the most common cause of infection was “lack of hygiene” including sharing towels or skipping showers after practice . While these may seem like common sense decisions, the reality is far removed, as players are never told the dangers of turf fields. Teaching players about the Five “C’S” of MRSA, crowding, contact, compromised skin, contamination and cleanliness, would go a long way towards preventing the spread of the disease. By taking such simple measures some predict we could decrease infection rates by close to 90% .
This coming Sunday, an estimated 50 million people will tune in to watch “America’s sport”. Whistles will whine, winners will be crowned and the national media will have even more food for fodder. Yet, amid all this noise, an epidemic lurks. MRSA, a microscopic bacterium, threatens even the strongest of bruisers. In truth, there is still much to be learned concerning MRSA’s infection of turf. In the meantime your best bet is to use your head, practice good hygiene and hope that this won’t be the problem that finally tackles the NFL.
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Spencer Bigelow is a senior at Muhlenberg College (’16). He is currently working towards a B.S. in Biology and aspires to serve his country as a Naval surgeon. A former high school football player, Spencer enjoys spending his free time rooting for his hometown San Diego Chargers.