Artificial turf raises cancer concerns in young athletes

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      Seattle soccer coach Amy Griffin appeared on NBC news last fall for voicing her concerns about artificial-turf fields. Specifically, the associate head coach of the University of Washington’s women’s team had been worried about “crumb rubber”—tiny black pieces of used tires—which is being used as infill. She had compiled a list of 38 young players—34 of them goalkeepers—who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Griffin couldn’t help but wonder if those athletes’ exposure to “tire crumb”, which contains multiple toxic chemicals and carcinogens, had put them at risk.

      Since October, her list has grown to 89 names. Although it’s difficult to prove a direct link between exposure to crumb rubber and cancer, Griffin still isn’t convinced that the substance used on synthetic-turf fields is safe, especially for young kids.

      “We don’t really know enough about the toxins in this stuff,” Griffin says in a phone interview. “You can smell it when it gets hot. Players say things like, ‘We get it [the crumbs] in our eyes’ or ‘Every time I play indoors, I have a hard time breathing.’ If we don’t know how safe it is, then why can we sprinkle it around on our playing fields?”
      The new generation of artificial-turf fields, including some in Greater Vancouver, often contains crumb rubber, which acts as fake soil, supporting the synthetic blades of grass and softening the surface. The crumbs can become airborne and get inhaled, ingested, and tracked into cars and homes on clothes and athletic gear. Aside from their potentially negative effect on the environment, rubber from pulverized tires contains several chemicals that are known or suspected to cause health “effects”, according to a March 2008 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

      “The most common types of synthetic rubber used in tires are composed of ethylene-propylene and styrene-butadiene combined with vulcanizing agents, fillers, plasticizers, and antioxidants in different quantities, depending on the manufacturer,” the article states. “Tire rubber also contains polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phthalates, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).”

      Specific compounds in the material, according to a 2009 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, include acetone, benzene, halogenated flame retardants, methyl ethyl ketone, phenol, styrene-butadiene, and trichloroethylene, as well as barium, cadmium, lead, mercury, and latex. (Some people have also voiced concerns over antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria being associated with synthetic turf.)

      Environment and Human Health, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Connecticut, reports that the strongest data looking at a link between crumb rubber and cancer come from the France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer’s study of the rubber industry. “Strong and sufficient evidence for cancer in humans was demonstrated in a series of epidemiology studies of rubber fabrication facilities throughout the world,” the EHHI website states. “One especially relevant report addressed exposures in a factory in Taiwan that made tire crumbs. In that study, mutagenic actions that were four to five times higher than in controls were shown in extracts of particulate matter collected in the air.”

      Studies into the effects of crumb rubber on human health, particularly in children, are limited. At any single site, there can be substantial variation in the materials used and the concentrations of contaminants measured, the EPA research found. And those that do exist suggest that chemical exposures from crumb rubber in synthetic turf do not pose a public health hazard.

      “On average, concentrations of components monitored in this study were below levels of concern,” the EPA report states. “However, given the very limited nature of this study (i.e., limited number of components monitored, samples sites, and samples taken at each site) and the wide diversity of tire crumb material, it is not possible to reach any more comprehensive conclusions without the consideration of additional data.”

      Thomas Soulliere, City of Vancouver director of recreation, says that the municipal body consulted with Vancouver Coastal Health a few years ago regarding this issue. (The Vancouver park board rents out nine artificial-turf fields, including two at Andy Livingstone Park and two at Trillium Park.)

      “They stated they had done research—a literature review of other jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada and consulted with other medical health offices in the region—and determined there was no health rationale for removing or replacing our artificial-turf fields,” Soulliere says by phone. “The estimates in terms of any potential exposure to any dangerous chemicals were very low, and there wasn’t a reason to be concerned.”

      Vancouver Coastal Health manager of environmental health Randall Ash concurs. “When we looked into this in 2008 or 2009, there was no reason to be concerned,” he says in a phone interview.

      In West Vancouver, two of three artificial-turf fields that were installed in 2012 contain crumb rubber. Communications director Jeff McDonald says the district has had only one inquiry from a community member about the safety of the material.

      “We take any kind of health concern seriously, and we’ll continue to keep our eye on it,” McDonald says by phone. “It’s early days, this issue; if it continues to grow, then we’ll monitor it, but at the moment we have had a lot of positive reinforcement and feedback about those fields. Health Canada has deemed crumb-rubber field systems safe enough to be sold in Canada. If Health Canada finds significant risks in the future, they will issue a product recall or ban its sale in Canada, and we would respond accordingly.”

      Others say more research is warranted.

      “It intrigues me from a scientific perspective,” says Hugh Davies, associate professor at UBC’s school of population and public health, in a phone interview. “You’ve clearly got a product that was designed for one use and it’s been repurposed, and you’ve got a totally different population that’s having exposure to it.…It’s being left out in the environment and breaking down even further. Very little study has been done so far, and what has been done hasn’t been long-term, so it seems to warrant more investigation.”

      John Spinelli, department head of cancer-control research at the B.C. Cancer Research Centre, notes that it’s difficult to extrapolate from the limited studies to date that all fields are safe.

      “More research needs to be done to establish that the fields in B.C. also have levels below detection,” he tells the Straight. “It would take a massive and expensive research study to relate the fields to cancer risk, but given the anecdotal evidence and the fact that children are involved, it seems worthwhile.”




      Feb 25, 2015 at 1:15am

      1) How does the exposure of tire crumb used on soccer fields compare to the amount of tire crumb produced from tire wear and left on our streets?
      2) Is there a similar increase in those diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma for those that play other forms football, rugby, lacrosse, etc on this type of artificial turf? How much time do athletes in these other games spend prone on the turf compared to soccer goal tenders?
      3) What are the levels of cancer are there for those playing on natural grass where the players may be exposed to pesticides?

      Nancy Alderman

      Feb 25, 2015 at 9:09am

      As of February 24, 2015 there are 126 cancers -- 112 of them are soccer players with blood cancers and 81 of them are Soccer Goalies. When a reporter asked the CT Health Department if in their study took into account goalies exposures -- they said "NO" they did not do that.

      Fields are dangerous, government has been complicit is putting rubber tires where our children play, state testing has been completely inadequate - as states too are complicit in putting rubber tires where children play.

      Children and athletes should not be on these fields. They contain too many carcinogens are are therefore not safe.


      Feb 25, 2015 at 2:38pm

      There have been dozens of local, state/provincial, national and international studies that have found the crumb rubber infill systems to be within required safety parameters. Even with this being the case, further study can only be helpful and all would welcome it. I have played and coached soccer for decades and do not know of a single case of a goalie that developed cancer, never mind linking cancer to playing on crumb rubber infill.

      While I am currently satisfied that there is no great risk to play on the crumb infill, There are other materials that can be used such as sustainable cork, different kinds of "cleaner" rubber pellets and even ground up recycled running shoes.

      I think it is more helpful to understand the actual facts surrounding this issue, to keep looking at the science and to consider the alternatives (if still felt necessary), rather than just reacting to anecdotal evidence and/or sensational reporting.

      Martin Dunphy

      Feb 25, 2015 at 2:51pm


      Thanks for the post. Conversely, your "I do not know of a single case" is just as anecdotal and sensational as the information you decry.
      I'm sure everyone can agree that evidence, however gathered, should not be ignored and should be investigated further. Otherwise, nothing happens. I do not know where the numbers supplied by the poster above you came from, but they are more than alarming, and I would still err on the side of caution with my children. Why would any parent do otherwise?
      Which ball player was it again who declared, back in the early days of synthetic turf: "If a cow can't eat it, I'm not playing on it!"?


      Feb 25, 2015 at 3:44pm

      Martin -

      You are correct in pointing out that one comment I made can be viewed as anecdotal and that was my point (poorly made) - that one can anecdotally(sp?) make the opposite claim. I went on to say that we should rely on facts and continue to review the science. I think we both agree here and on the fact that no one wants to put Athletes at risk. It is worth noting again that while there are dozens of studies that have shown synthetic fields to be safe, there isn't a single study showing the opposite to be true.

      Not sure however, that I agree with your folksy "cow" quote. Although everybody would prefer to play on a natural surface - me included- Synthetic surfaces have been hugely successful in allowing athletes to log more hours playing the sports they love by reducing game or practice cancelations, etc. Your point seems to be that athletes should only play on natural surfaces?

      Consider the old saying - "if God had meant for us to fly, he would have given us wings". Tongue in cheek of course, but If we followed your suggested path, athletes would have fewer opportunities to play and it would take us a lot longer to get to those sunny beaches! :-)

      Appreciate the banter..

      Nice Article Full of "Sciencyness"

      Mar 1, 2015 at 9:06am

      How about a little more depth to the numbers? Telling us how many cancers exist is meaningless without having the sample size or even an approximation of the group understand study. This piece is barely above the level of "I heard a friend of a friend's friend" but at least it is about an issue that merits some investigation. Will the Straight spend more or less time on this than on the mayor's press releases about his private life?

      Martin Dunphy

      Mar 1, 2015 at 1:13pm


      Thanks for the comment, but dd you read the article? Did you want the Straight to conduct scientific studies? Who, exactly, should we be contacting who has not been contacted above? As people have stated, either more testing is needed (one side) or authorities have determined that there is no danger. That has been reported above.
      Here is a local followup posted by editor Charlie Smith yesterday.

      Sydney Stahlbaum

      May 18, 2015 at 1:29pm

      The Connecticut Dept. of Public Health and Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health recently issued these statements validating that all the independent, science-based studies are clear — there is no elevated health risk from synthetic turf or crumb rubber.

      Massachusetts, Bureau of Environmental Health:

      Connecticut Department of Health Circular Letter to Local Health Departments and Districts:

      List of Studies (1998-2014):