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Turf Field

The Truth About Turf Field Safety

Turf Field

This isn’t your average Turf Safety post talking about knee and leg injuries. Instead we’re focusing on chemicals. More specifically – how prolonged exposure to chemicals can affect young athletes.

The Golden Rule of Parenting: Monitor what your children are about to put into their mouths at all times. Keep small, dangerous objects away.

This rule is adopted early-on in parenthood and abided by until there is no longer any apparent risk of choking or digesting harmful substances. So the answer to this next questions should seem pretty obvious: Would you let your children consume chemicals like copper, mercury, arsenic, or acetone? Absolutely Not.

Unfortunately that might not be reality for many of us. Millions of young athletes are ingesting harmful chemicals every time they leave the house for sports practice.

A substance called “tire crumb,” or ground rubber, is recovered from recycled scrap tires and used in synthetic turf fields as the “infill” between the plastic grass fibers to provide stability and uniformity. The material is used in countless municipal parks, golf courses, playgrounds, airports, tracks, and sports fields around the US.

The Research

The Environmental Protection Agency performed a study on the substance in 2009 after concerns were raised over the safety of chemicals found in tires. The results identified a number of compounds that may be found in tires – although not all tires contain the same materials. The list includes Acetone, Arsenic, Barium, Chromium, Latex, Lead, Mercury, Phenol, and Rayon just to name a few.

Even with the harmful chemicals present, the limited study concluded that the concentrations of materials that made up the ground rubber were below the levels considered harmful. Given the limited number of constituents monitored, sample sites, and samples extracted from each sites, it was not possible to extend the results to a more comprehensive conclusion without additional data.

So there you have it – the EPA found that the chemicals were below harmful levels. So why is this still relevant years later?

The Controversy Revival

In October 2014, NBC News released an investigation that re-opened the concerns over the safety of the synthetic fields. Associate head coach for the University of Washington’s women’s soccer team, Amy Griffin, has been working since 2009 to collect the names of sick players, specifically goalies, who she believes fell victim to the chemicals they were exposed to after two young female goalies she knew had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Griffin teamed up with NBC to expose her findings and ask for some answers.

Although not a scientific data set, Griffin uses personal experience with the tiny black rubber crumbs to support her theory. As any players knows, the field’s crumbs get everywhere – in their uniforms, their hair, their cleats. But this is especially true for goalkeepers. Goalkeepers experience the most direct contact with the turf during practices and games as they dive to defend the goal. They leave the field with the pellets in their cuts and scrapes, and in their mouths.

Griffin has compiled a growing list of 38 American soccer players, 34 of which are goalies, who have been diagnosed with cancer. Blood cancers like lymphoma and leukemia dominate the list.

EPA’s Response

Crumb RubberAlthough it’s practically impossible to pinpoint the origin of a disease like cancer, why not use the resources available in the US and research this topic further?

NBC contacted the EPA in 2013 to ask them just that. The EPA stated that a meeting was held in 2010 with state and federal officials in which they declared that the “EPA determined that this is not an issue.” There are no plans to conduct further studies on the subject in the future.

The Aftermath

In the wake of the NBC story, turf field installments around the country have sparked a highly contested debate. With one side supporting the existing studies, and the other demanding more research, fields have continued to be postponed, protested, and installed in the media spotlight.

Following the news investigation, the installment plans for an artificial field in Ocean City, New Jersey have been postponed until further research can be performed.

Ocean City Mayor Jay Gillian announced, “I have directed my staff to discontinue the planned project to install this material at Carey Stadium. While I am aware that there are no studies demonstrating a health risk associated with such turf, I have come to believe that further study is necessary.” Pending the outcome of further studies, the Mayor is not ruling out the installation of the turf field in the future. But for now the City plans to maintain their existing natural grass field.

High school fields are following suit. Only days away from the installation process, Kennedy Catholic High School in Washington immediately switched gears. Scrapping the crumb rubber, the school will instead be using a Nike infill made up of recycled tennis shoe soles. School Principal Mike Prato and Coach Bob Bourgette agreed that “recognizing the tests and reports are not confirmed about the cancer risk, we still chose to mitigate the concerns of our community and go with Nike Grind.”

But supporters of the fields note that all evidence collected so far by experimental studies and state and federal agencies have proven that the artificial surfaces are safe.

The Golden Gate Park Project set to take place in the Beach Chalet soccer fields in San Francisco was approved through a public vote. A frustrated Phil Ginsburg, General Manager of the city’s Parks & Recreation Department expressed that the NBC concerns were preventing his agency from providing their local children with a badly needed resource. “We have studied this extremely thoroughly. We’re not in the business of harming the health of our children.” The Golden Gate Project had received approvals from the local government, environmental impact reports, the California Coastal Commission, and the Superior Court in California. When the issue was taken to the ballot, San Francisco residents approved the installation.

What’s Next For Turf Fields?

With the EPA declaring the fields safe, and a growing number of goalies stepping forward, the jury is still out on whether or not synthetic turf fields should raise concern.

For the Griffin’s theory and the full investigative story visit NBC’s website.  And for EPA’s side of the story? Read through their full page of results here.

Tell us what you think! Are turf fields safe? Leave us a comment in the section below.

Kris Baker

Kris Baker is the President of Demosphere and has been serving the Youth Sports Community since 2006.