Various news outlets have reported on the dangers of the crumb rubber infill turf including NBC NEWS and the website THE POSTGAME. Recently, a few famous athletes including Abby Wambach, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant voiced their opinions against synthetic turf fields.
The issue is certainly significant as artificial turf fields are now everywhere in the United States, from high schools to multi-million-dollar athletic complexes. As any parent or player who has been on them can testify, the tiny black rubber crumbs of which the fields are made — chunks of old tires — get everywhere. In players’ uniforms, in their hair, in their cleats.
One of the problems with researching the potential health hazards of crumb rubber fields is the sheer variety of materials used in the product.
Tens of thousands of different tires from different brands may be used in one field. According to the EPA, mercury, lead, benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and arsenic, among several other chemicals, heavy metals, and carcinogens, have been found in tires.
Darren Gill, vice president of marketing for FieldTurf, a prominent turf company, said that those ingredients might worry consumers, but the manufacturing process ensures that their product is safe.
“If you look at the ingredients that go into a car tire, some people take those ingredients and turn them into health concerns,” Gill said. “But after the vulcanization process, those ingredients are inert.”
Industry leaders say while they encourage additional research, studies have shown that the substances found in crumb rubber are not at levels high enough to be at risk to children or athletes.
“There are certainly chemicals in small amounts [in turf] as in many other things,” said Lee, of the Synthetic Turf Council.
“You could evaluate most any material out there and you’re going to find at some level, some chemical that might cause concern.”
“The levels as they exist in tires, ground up tires, are very, very low,” he added. “The EPA has not found adverse health effect. Several state organizations have investigated it quite thoroughly.”
Existing research has attempted to measure the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals through the inhalation of gasses and particulate matter, as well as skin contact. Studies have found that crumb rubber fields emit gases that can be inhaled. Turf fields can become very hot — 10 to 15 degrees hotter than the ambient temperature – increasing the chances that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and chemicals can “off-gas,” or leach into the air.
One study performed by the state of Connecticut measured the concentrations of VOCs and chemicals in the air over fields. In addition to VOCs such as benzene and methylene chloride, researchers identified various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
The report concluded that “the use of outdoor and indoor artificial turf fields is not associated with elevated health risks,” but that more research was needed to better understand chemical exposures on outdoor fields during hot weekends and in indoor facilities, which showed higher levels of chemicals in the air.
Other studies have looked at whether run-off from crumb rubber turf is harmful to aquatic life, or whether the rate of injury on turf is lower than on natural grass.
University of Washington Soccer Coach Amy Griffin is highly suspicious of the crumb rubber turf. Griffin began to suspect the turf after hearing about soccer players becoming sick with cancer. Few studies have looked at the issues unique to soccer player – whether ingesting the particles by mouth or absorbing them into the body through cuts and scrapes is dangerous.
Jordan Swarthout, 22, started playing soccer when she was 4. She became a goalie at 9, already addicted to the “adrenaline rush” that comes each time the ball hurtles toward the net.
By 11, Swarthout, who grew up in Sumner, Washington, about 45 minutes south of Seattle, was playing almost entirely on crumb rubber turf.
When she and her team asked what was in the turf, “old tires” was the best answer she got. “We always wondered what was underneath it,” she said. “What we couldn’t see.”
But the smell that hangs over crumb rubber fields – the scent of tires baking in the sun — became as familiar to Swarthout as her endless goalie drills.
She even got used to the “turf bugs,” as she and her teammates called them.
During high school, she played on multiple teams at once, with two-hour practices five days a week, and games at least twice a week. Every day, she tried to clean the black rubber pellets, the “turf bugs,” out of the abrasions and burns she suffered as a goalkeeper on turf. Every day, to the chagrin of her mother, she shook them from her clothes and cleats onto the laundry room floor. She brushed them out of her hair, and spit them out of her mouth.
“The little black beads,” she said. “In the games and practices they’d get in my eyes, they’d get in my mouth, they’d get in my nose. My mom would get so mad at me because I’d go to the bathroom to take a shower, and the turf bugs would be everywhere.”
Jordan’s mother, Suzie Swarthout, said her daughter probably swallowed hundreds of tire crumbs a year.
Yet neither Jordan nor Suzie worried much about it. “We all had the confidence that the proper steps had been taken, the research had been done, that it had been proved to be safe,” said Suzie.
“We all know how bad tires are,” said Jordan. “You don’t eat tires. Yet we were. You’d get it in your mouth and you wouldn’t think about it.”
In 2013, after more than a year of mysterious thyroid problems, a biopsy determined that the star athlete had stage three Hodgkin lymphoma.
Suspicion Leads School to Last Minute Change
Health concerns about crumb rubber fields prompted Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, Washington, to make a last minute change to its brand new football field set to open next week, CBS Seattle affiliate KIRO reports.
“We were days away from the infill process,” Principal Mike Prato told KIRO reporter David Ham. “We said regardless, stop everything.”
Prato wrote to parents about the situation saying, “We appreciate the feedback and concerns we have heard from some of you as we were just days away from installing crumb rubber fill – the final step of the installation process on our own field. Because the news is still breaking, and it will inevitably take some time for all the scientific testing to be completed and reviewed, we have decided to make a bold move as a school to prevent any unnecessary risk to our student athletes. We are replacing the black rubber fill with a cutting edge product called Nike Grind – which is simply ground up tennis shoe soles provided by the Nike Corporation.”
The memo went on to note that “Kennedy Catholic’s field will be one of only a few nationwide to feature this recycled material and the only known high school in Washington.”
The cost of swapping out the crumb rubber for the Nike Grind material will cost the school an extra $20,000 or more. The new stadium already cost about $2.4 million to build.
“My pocketbook is going to be a little bit less robust but it’s the safety of the kids that’s going to be a piece of mind for me,” said Prato. “It’s the right thing to do.”
If you’re worried about the field or playground where your children play, our firm suggests gathering enough of the rubber crumbs to fill a regular sized ziplock bag. And then contacting our firm to have the sample tested. Better safe than sorry.