Are Synthetic Turf Fields Safe?

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University of Washington soccer coach Amy Griffin is keeping the spotlight on fake turf's safety. Photo: NBC News. H. Rappleye
Amy Griffin and her “national soccer player cancer list” is keeping the lens focused on our nation’s debate on the safety of artificial grass turf fields. Photo: NBC News. H. Rappleye

“I realize that if I drop the ball then everything stops, all the conversations seem to stop. If I can keep carrying it forward, or until someone else picks up the phone, that’s my job, otherwise this past year would’ve been a waste.” said Amy Griffin, University of Washington’s Associate Head soccer coach on NBC Nightly News October 1, 2015. 

Since the original NBC Nightly News report in October 2014 which questioned the safety of our country’s 11,000 synthetic turfs, the situation is status quo: industry and some state governments claim artificial turf is safe, and no federal governmental agency has stepped in to answer the safety question. What has changed is Amy Griffin’s cancer list has grown. It’s useful to know that health-focused nonprofits question artificial turf safety with the Environmental and Human Health, Inc. being the most vocal. This uncertainty is unsettling for parents, coaches and players, because at this time there is no concrete data available to make a smart decision.

Synthetic turf fields answered many sports directors’ prayers when the turf’s third generation came into being in the late 1990s. Modernized artificial grass is easier to play on, stands up to repeated play, and requires no watering or fertilizing. Artificial turf can be expensive because it’s a complicated product consisting of plastic grass-like threads that are filled in with “crumb rubber” dirt. Crumb rubber is recycled tires chopped into little bits.  Many Baltimore-area fields at schools and rec facilities have synthetic turf fields.

Coach Griffin made national news when she recounted that she noticed soccer goalies, one a friend who passed away, who were otherwise healthy and strong young people, were getting cancer. Coach Griffin began compiling a list of turf playing athletes that contracted cancer. Today, her list has 153 athletes, with 124 soccer players. Of the soccer players, 85 are goalies.

Questions of safety and toxicity surfaced early because rubber tires contain many chemicals, including toxic volatile organic compounds, and also known carcinogens. And make no mistake, tires do release chemicals as this 2007 report to California clearly states, but the report and many others claim not enough to make someone sick, or get cancer. In 2008, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued the “Ok to install. Ok to Play on” message. And boy did we install artificial turf, today the industry is about $1 billion. Interestingly, read the CPSC’s red-backpedal-disclaimer explaining that the agency did not look at chemicals and metals beyond lead. (There used to be lead in the paint, but that was eliminated.)

Through its Synthetic Turf Council, the industry insists that their product is safe with this statement found on their web site, “Not one study out of the 51 we cite and make available on our website warns against a serious elevated human health or environmental risk from synthetic turf…not a single one.”

One vocal voice against fake turf is the non-profit Environmental and Human Health, Inc (EHHI) in New Haven, CT. Yes, the New Haven where Yale University is located. Many of EHHI’s members are Yale scientists and doctors. Reading EHHI’s web site, and Dr. David Brown’s SC.D. position that was emailed to me, makes you want to run for the grassy hills.

“Grinding up waste tires and placing the crumbs on children’s synthetic turf fields and toddler playgrounds ranks with some of the major blunders of the political system. It ranks with lead gasoline, asbestos on houses and doctors selling cigarettes,” he writes.

Okay then. It seems that when we ask basic questions about everyday consumer products in our Beneath The Surface series, we find no one has a clear answer. Thank heavens for Coach Griffin for staying on point, and also to NBC News for continuing to raise the turf issue.  If your child is a goalie, or plays on synthetic turf often, it may be useful to talk with your pediatrician about effective ways of reducing exposure to the tire bits. The CSPS does recommend children wash their hands after use.

This article is part of of the year-long series, Beneath the Surface: What’s in Everyday Consumer Products. Articles in this series will examine how prevalent synthetic chemicals are in everyday products, and the consequences of their use to our health and our environment. 

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Laurel Peltier
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