These days artificial turf is practically synonymous with the word “sport.” You can find it almost anywhere — from nearby elementary schools to the biggest and most prestigious college athletic programs in the country. Local municipalities use it for recreation centers and playgrounds. High schools opt for its cost-saving benefits, as it’s durable and generally requires less maintenance over time. But a harrowing report from NBC News has shed new light on the potential dangers of turf and the synthetic properties from which it’s made. It’s forcing many to reconsider whether the surface is safe for play.
Turf generally contains two distinct properties: polyethylene plastic grass and tens of thousands of tiny rubber beads made from recycled tires, known as “crumb rubber.” As detailed by NBC, the crumb rubber has been the primary cause for concern. The network spoke with University of Washington soccer coach Amy Griffin, who shared the stories of two former UW players who were diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Both players happened to be goalkeepers, and both were coming in close contact with the turf on a daily basis.
At first Griffin dismissed the diagnoses as an eerie coincidence. But digging deeper, she discovered an all-too common pattern that sent her on quest for answers. Since those first two cases, she has slowly but doggedly collected the names of more than 38 American soccer players — 34 of which are goalies — who were later diagnosed with a form of cancer. In each situation, blood cancers like lymphoma and leukemia proved to be the predominant types. NBC noted that Griffin’s list is not based on fact or scientific analysis; it’s simply based on a pattern that Griffin could no longer ignore.
Regardless of its scientific merits, Griffin’s list, informed by testimonials of former players and coaches, is once again questioning the safety of artificial turf fields, most especially for children. Following the NBC News report, two schools in New Jersey and Washington postponed plans to install new turf, citing the need for more studies and testing.
Health advocates and organizations like Environment and Human Health, Inc. have produced some studies that shed some light on turf’s distinct qualities.
“From the available information,” says one study from the EHH, “it was found that tire crumbs contained volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs) with carcinogenic potential, which could be extracted from the crumbs in the laboratory.”
The study continues: “The relationship between exposures affecting the rubber workers and those experienced by people using athletic fields, or children in playgrounds covered with ground-up rubber tire material is not known, but we do know that many of the same chemicals that rubber workers are exposed to are being released from the ground-up rubber tire crumbs.”
Turf fields have been the source of controversy since their introduction some 50 years ago. Moms Team, “The Trusted Source for Sports Parents,” noted that 900 new synthetic turf fields were installed nation-wide in 2008, now up to 5,000 in 2014. Moms Team provided a list of pros and cons for parents to be aware of. The pros ranged from the elimination of grass pesticides to the cons of toxic run-off caused by wet fields and stormy weather.
Turfgrass Producers International acknowledges that new generation turf potentially poses health-related issues, providing a list of common concerns that many people have when considering the installation of a turf surface and openly promoting a “think-twice” mentality: “As experience has proven time and again, ‘If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,’ is an adage worthy of contemplation when consideration is being given to constructing an artificial turf area.”