Schools Turn to Artificial Turf, Worry About Cancer Link


A recent investigative report by NBC News has left many concerned about a possible link between the rise in cancer among young athletes and the artificial turf they play on.

The cause of concern is the artificial grass made of crumb rubber from old pieces of tire referred to as infill. The tire gives the field its bounce, and in turn, protection from serious injuries like concussions. However, when player's bodies hit the ground they come in contact with small pieces of the infill, which stay on uniforms, in hair and in cuts and abrasions long after the game is over. The concern is stronger for players like soccer goalies who dive directly into the infill, which often times ends up in their mouths.

In their report, NBC News featured University of Washington soccer coach Amy Griffin, who had put together a list of American soccer players who have been diagnosed with cancer. The list of 38 players contains 34 goalies.

It is difficult to find the particular chemical responsible for the rise in cancer rates due to the numerous amount of types of tires used for the infill, although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists ingredients such as mercury, lead, benzene and arsenic among ingredients found within the tires.

Lead maker of artificial turf, Field Turf, says that the way they produce their product makes it entirely safe for customers.

David Gill, vice president for marketing, said to NBC, "If you look at the ingredients that go into a car tire, some people take those ingredients and turn them into health concerns, but after the vulcanization process, those ingredients are inert."

Although studies have been performed over the past few years, no absolute link has tied cancer to artificial turf. More research is needed on the subject, particularly concerning ingestion of the materials.

Dr. Davis Lee, of the Synthetic Turf Council said, "We've got 14 studies on our website that says we can find no negative health effects."

After completing their own studies on the topic, both the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission came to the conclusion that there was no cause for alarm. However, the EPA then told NBC News that "their studies were limited and that more testing needs to be done." However, the agency considers the topic a "state and local decision," so it seems unlikely that more testing will done by them.

All of the studies conducted concluded that there was little risk of exposure to harmful chemicals. However, a study from the state of Connecticut did say more research was needed concerning a possible risk in higher temperatures, as well as with indoor artificial turf. A separate study conducted in 2013 found some concern in the level of lead and the potential risks to children.

The studies have caused some schools to act by canceling plans to install artificial turf fields in an effort to bring peace of mind to parents and players alike.

Kennedy Catholic High School recently changed their plans to lay out an artificial turf field after seeing the news story on NBC. Instead, the school will lay a field that uses "Nike-grind" — or old sneakers — in place of tires as filler.

Similar decisions were made in schools in Mississippi and New Jersey.

"The fact is that we do not have enough information on the effects that exposure to crumb rubber has on young athletes," said Rep. Pallone in a statement after Ocean City announced its decision. "We do know that middle school and high school students who are still growing and developing are particularly vulnerable to the harmful chemicals found in rubber tires. And they are playing on these fields unaware of any potential risks it may pose to their health. I think that we have a responsibility to do more research on these substances so that we know the fields our kids are playing on are safe."

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