Artificial turf and cancer risk
Having young people play on a field filled with carcinogens turns out to be not so good an idea as it seems. Daniel Luzer posts at the Oxford University Press blog:
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 neighborhood, and they had grown up and gone to college,” Griffin said. “And then they both came down with lymphoma.
“And we were all sitting there chatting—both of them were bald—and they were like, ‘Why us?’ We were just brainstorming and someone said, ‘I wonder if it has something to do with the black dots.’”
The “black dots” are familiar to anyone who plays sports on artificial turf. 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.
Today’s fields typically contain the equivalent of at least 20,000 ground-up tires. Such fields were introduced in the 1990s to make playing fields safer (gone were the AstroTurf rug burns) and safely dispose of used car tires, which can pollute the water, air, and soil as they decompose—or catch fire—in landfills.
The UW campus is near Seattle Children’s Hospital. In three of the first four times Griffin visited, she encountered goalies with cancer.
“And so I started Googling,” she said: “‘What’s in a turf field?’”
“And there was a lot of online discussion about this. What are those little black dots? Well it’s ground-up tires. It’s tire trash, from the dump. And it contains carcinogens,” Griffin said.
The black dots contain mercury, benzene, and arsenic. Griffin discovered that although scientists don’t know that crumb rubber turf causes cancer, they also don’t know that it’s safe.
“I’ve been at the University of Washington for 21 years,” Griffin said. “And for 15 years I saw nothing. I knew no one with lymphoma. But now, personally, I know six people who’ve had cancer.” By 2010 she had heard of 12 soccer players with cancer and decided to keep a list. She now has a list of 230 soccer players, nearly all goalkeepers, who have played on artificial turf and developed cancers. “Why is this?” she said. “I thought it might be like asbestos, where it took 35 years for people to see the danger.”
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 quantity of toxic substances synthetic turf releases, the report concluded, “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 fiber 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”.
The most pertinent concern, echoed by many scientists and advocates, was that researchers didn’t know much about the safety of crumb rubber. 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?. . .
Continue reading. There’s quite a bit more at the link.
I wonder whether schools and universities will take action to remove this risk. I strongly doubt it. This is where government has a job: to forbid unsafe playing surfaces without leaving the decision up to individual schools.