Did you know that the artificial turf that your children play on contains carcinogenic materials? Many sports clubs and even schools are using artificial turf for soccer fields, hockey fields and the like these days, and this may be costing your children their health.
Amy Griffin, Associate Head Coach of Women’s Soccer at the University of Washington in Seattle, first began to wonder about artificial turf and cancer in 2009. “We had two goalies from the neighbourhood, and they had grown up and gone to college,” Griffin said. “And then they both came down with lymphoma.
While sitting around socialising, talk turned to why the two had both contracted lymphoma, and someone said, “I wonder if it has something to do with the black dots.”
“Black Dots” are the crumb rubber used in today’s artificial turf fields (and on playgrounds). Those fields are designed to be more pliable than AstroTurf because they’re made from longer synthetic grass surrounded by infill made of ground rubber from used tires, usually mixed with sand.
These artificial turf fields, first introduced in the 1990s, typically contain the equivalent of at least 20,000 ground-up tires. They were introduced to make playing fields safer (no more AstroTurf rug burns) as well as to “safely” dispose of used car tires so that they do not pollute the water, air, and soil as they decompose,or catch fire in landfills.
Research into the contents of the artificial turf which makes the little “black dots” has shown that it contains tyre-trash and contains mercury, benzene, and arsenic – all known carcinogens.
By 2010, after doing some enquiries, Griffin had heard of 12 soccer players with cancer and decided to keep a list which has grown to contain the names of of 230 soccer players, nearly all goalkeepers, who have played on artificial turf and developed cancers.
In the UK alone, there are 386 new cases per year of Hodgkins Lymphona (just one type of cancer on Amy’s list) in people between Between 10 and 24 years old – sadly, young people are especially vulnerable to it). Over the course of 6 years, you might consider that it would be possible to find examples of those who have come into contact with artificial turf surfaces on a regular basis. That doesn’t prove that their cancer was caused by it.
Other key safety concerns regarding artificial turfgrassis that it gets much hotter than natural turf, with artificial turfgrass being 22° F hotter than natural turf (94° F vs. 116° F).
A 2014 study of nine synthetic turf fields in Italy indicated that evaporating materials at high temperatures may expose children in crucial growth stages to toxic chemicals. The release of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) occurs continuously, according to the report, and the “toxicity equivalent of the different compounds evaporating from the crumb was far from negligible.” The report concluded that “the quantity of toxic substances synthetic turf releases does not make it safe for public health.”
In 2010, researchers from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta evaluated the concentration of lead in synthetic turf by collecting samples of fields. They determined that the level of lead in turf fibre material and in field dust exceeded the limit for children’s consumer products and concluded that “synthetic turf can deteriorate to form dust containing lead at levels that may pose a risk to children.”
According to many other experts though,”the fact that crumb rubber contains carcinogens doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s dangerous to people or leads to cancer.”
Archie Bleyer, MD, clinical research professor at the Knight Cancer Institute of the Oregon Health & Science University, spent ten years with other researchers investigating the causes of childhood cancers. “We spent tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions, and we could find no external cause for cancer in children.”
In 2008, researchers from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School put it like this:
Neither systematic testing nor post-test evaluation has been performed on the composition and fate of either the turf or the filler. […] Is the crumb rubber contaminated with metals as it comes from ground up used tires that have been in contact with many roadways and dirt surfaces; what is the surface temperature of the artificial turf as the crumb rubber is black and will absorb more heat than a grass surface; how are the fields safely disposed of once they exceed their usable lifetime; and what happens to the rubber material that does not stay attached to the turf as it becomes mobilized and is released into the environment or becomes attached to the skin and clothing of the users? Numerous mothers have told us that this crumb rubber comes home with the child and is distributed around the house. Furthermore, there are now residential uses of turf with and without “in fill” marketed in many colors with unspecified coloring agents. Is the rubber and turf safe?
Researchers in California, Oregon, and Washington are looking into the relationship between synthetic turf and cancer. So far, according to Bleyer, a trend doesn’t appear to be evident. Peer-reviewed research over the years has not yet shown evidence of a connection between crumb rubber turf and any childhood cancers.
Griffin’s concern is that the way scientists have been testing the safety of artificial turf may not reflect the way some soccer players interact with the material. She has seen blood cancers mostly in soccer players who were goalkeepers. They dive into the turf, often breathing only inches away from it, and end up ingesting much more of the substance orally than the average player. That’s not the sort of interaction researchers tend to investigate.
Despite widespread adoption of the crumb rubber–filled synthetic turf, no epidemiological studies have examined populations with experience playing on such fields. Nor have researchers conducted animal testing on rubber fill, in which mammals are directly exposed to the substance for long periods and researchers examine the effects.
Andrew Watterson, PhD, professor of health and director of the Centre for Public Health and Population Health Research at Scotland’s University of Stirling, has found cancer-causing chemicals in crumb samples from artificial soccer fields. He argues that the problem is just that so little is known about such a potentially dangerous substance.
“The surprising thing to me is that the health issues were not checked out much earlier—bearing in mind how long such pitches have been around and how many millions of people, especially children, use the surfaces worldwide—and we still don’t know what, if any, health risks there are from widely recognized carcinogenic substances used in crumb rubber and what uptake rather than simply exposure there is,” Watterson said. “It would have been in both government and industry interests to have sorted this [out] a long time ago.”
Tania Bush Isaksen, PhD, MPH, lecturer in the department of environmental and occupational health sciences at UW’s School of Public Health, is investigating cancer rates among athletes across Washington State. What she’s working on won’t tell whether artificial turf causes cancer, but it will tell us if these rates are higher than we should expect.
The Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also are studying the issue. However, some sports facilities aren’t waiting. At least 30 clubs in the Netherlands have stopped the public from using fields made with artificial turf because of fears that the rubber could be dangerous to health.
Both Griffen and Bleyer say that they do not necessarily want to eliminate the artificial turf as it allows children to play year-round though, and exercise is vital for children. Griffen says that her own children play on synthetic turf, but she makes sure they shower right after practice and immediately put their clothes in the laundry.
“A lot of this is just basic hygiene,” Isaksen said. “Take off your cleats and your shin guards and your socks outside; those things just don’t go in the house. And then go take a shower.”
Tips to Minimise Contact with Rubber Crumb
While we wait for experts to tell us just how dangerous these artificial turf fields actually are, there are some things that you/your children should be doing anyway, to counteract any ill-effects:
- Hands (and any other part of the anatomy which has come into contact with the artificial turf) should be washed after each contact, to remove any traces of rubber crumb that might have been picked up.
- Clothing should be changed and laundered.
- If you (or your child)has an open wound which has got rubber crumb in it, ensure that the affected area is immediately washed to remove any of this debris.