Health Concerns Over Crumb Rubber Fields Have Schools Worried

Oak Park's new artificial turf "feels a little weird because it's so colorful," said 9-year-old soccer player Alexandra Ballinger. Oh great, colorful poison!

Oak Park’s new artificial turf “feels a little weird because it’s so colorful,” said 9-year-old soccer player Alexandra Ballinger. Oh great, colorful poison!

Crumb Rubber fields continue to be newsworthy as the following article demonstrates.  It appeared in the Chicago-Tribune on April 14, 2016.  It is curious that Field Turf, one of the largest manufacturers and proponents of Crumb Rubber fields, no longer installs Crumb Rubber.  The question is why.  What does Field Turf know or suspect that the public at large does not.  There are 11,000 of these synthetic fields in the US.  What are they doing to the children that play on them?  How are they affecting surrounding water supplies?  How many scientific studies have the tire companies funded?  Is the government task force set up to investigate the potential dangers looking at every possible angle?  We simply don’t know enough.

Rain had fallen steadily for hours, the kind of shower that turns grass fields to mush and forces young athletes to take the day off. But there they were, a squad of 9- and 10-year-old Oak Park soccer players practicing their skills on a damp but playable surface made of plastic and rubber.

“I got here and was super excited because any other field, there would be standing water,” said Todd Hover, the team’s coach.

Rain-or-shine playability is a big reason why thousands of schools and park districts around the country have turned to artificial turf, but increasingly, some parents worry that the convenience has come with a trade-off.

“Crumb rubber” – the particles of shredded tires that cushion the turf like simulated dirt – has been called a health hazard by critics. They point to testing that has found the material to contain a range of harmful substances such as lead and mercury.

The industry responds that dozens of studies have shown crumb rubber to pose no threat to human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched a research project aimed at providing better answers, but in the meantime, companies are offering alternative materials for their fields.

They include coconut fiber, plastic granules and, in the case of Oak Park’s soccer field, minced sneaker soles. These materials are pricier than shredded tires, but some public officials conclude that the expense is worth it to ease the minds of parents and athletes.

“We wanted to make sure that the community will be comfortable using it,” said Stephen Scholten, of the Arlington Heights Park District, which this spring will install two fields using cork as infill. “Even though no definitive study has found whether crumb rubber is harmful, we just took an extra-careful approach.”

Carpets to crumbs

The first generation of artificial turf came out in the 1960s, billed as a way to keep fields in good shape despite heavy use. The plastic carpets developed a reputation as an injury threat, and in the mid-1990s, companies introduced a version that took advantage of an abundant resource – old tires.

Grinding them into crumbs to be sprinkled among blades of plastic grass produced a more forgiving surface. First adopted by professional and major college teams, the new turf caught the eye of school administrators and recreation officials looking for ways to cut maintenance costs while accommodating swelling numbers of young athletes.

Today, more than 11,000 fields in North America are covered with artificial grass, according to the Synthetic Turf Council. But over the last decade, some activists, coaches and parents have expressed concerns about the possible risks of crumb rubber.

One leading critic is Nancy Alderman, of Connecticut’s Environment and Human Health Inc. The a nonprofit research and advocacy group has questioned the safety of crumb rubber for years and recently commissioned a Yale University study that found a dozen carcinogenic chemicals in the material.

Alderman said the rubber breaks down over time, producing dust that can be inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through cuts and scrapes. Though the effects on human health remain unclear, Alderman and other critics point to a list, compiled by University of Washington women’s soccer coach Amy Griffin, of 220 athletes who said they were stricken with cancer after long periods of practicing and playing on synthetic turf.

Griffin acknowledged that her list does not prove causation, but it has still prompted her to take precautions with her team. They practice on grass as often as possible, and when they do use an artificial field, the goalkeepers, the position that accounts for the most cancer cases on Griffin’s list, are urged to wear long sleeves and pants.

Despite the cancer fears, Michael Peterson, a toxicologist who advises the Recycled Rubber Council, said many studies have failed to show a link between crumb rubber and health problems.

“(The) presence of a chemical does not mean that anyone will be exposed to it or that it would be harmful, and does not necessarily mean it reaches levels above commonly accepted baselines,” he said.

Such reassurances have not satisfied Chicago-area parents such as Nancy Perlman. She and a group of neighbors sued the Glen Ellyn Park District last year to stop the installation of a crumb rubber field at Newton Park, saying wind and rain would carry the particles to her nearby property.

The district denied that the rubber would migrate via the elements or pose a health hazard, and it said the project had overwhelming public support. When a judge declined to issue an order to stop construction, Perlman and her neighbors dropped the suit and the field was completed.

Perlman said she doesn’t know whether crumb rubber has gotten into her yard – the district said it has received no complaints about that from anyone – but she remains uneasy about the material.

“There are many carcinogenic chemicals in ground-up tires,” she said. “It seems like doing research first would be the safer approach to protect people.”

Rob Dixon, the father of a 10-year-old soccer player, asked his local school board to forgo crumb rubber last year when it built an artificial turf field at Riverside Brookfield High School. Board members decided to use the material anyway, saying they were satisfied it would be safe, and now Dixon wonders whether he’ll allow his son to continue in the sport.

“We’re trying to come to a decision on that: Is this an activity we’re really going to engage in?” he said. “It’s a big thing when you have a kid who enjoys the sport. To put this in the mix, it’s a difficult position for parents to be in.”

New surfaces spread

Concerns like that have led to changes in the artificial turf business. Once rare alternatives are becoming more common.

FieldTurf, a company that says it accounts for about half of the artificial turf in America, used crumb rubber in almost every project five years ago. Today, 15 percent of its fields use other types of infill, from cork to plastic.

Batavia Public School District 101 decided to use a FieldTurf product, CoolPlay, on its new high school football field. The material includes a layer of cork particles atop a crumb rubber base, but Pat Browne, the district’s director of building and grounds, said the rubber should not come into contact with athletes.

“We’ve been looking into the issue of whether the claims of rubber causing cancer have any merit,” he said. “Research doesn’t seem to indicate that at the moment, but we wanted to be prudent with what we’re putting in.”

When Oak Park installed two fields late last year, it went with Nike Grind, which uses the shredded rubber soles of athletic shoes. It looks like vibrant confetti, much to the amusement of the young soccer players who were practicing in the rain at Brooks Middle School.

“It feels a little weird because it’s so colorful,” said 9-year-old Alexandra Ballinger.

Jan Arnold, of the Park District of Oak Park, which provided most of the funding for the $1.6 million project, said the community appears satisfied with the choice.

“There hasn’t been any concern expressed about tennis shoes,” she said.

Contrary to crumb rubber, though, Nike Grind has not been the subject of much independent research. The company did not respond to questions about the chemicals it contains but said it is “routinely tested against safety standards” before being used on fields.

Alderman said the lack of detailed information on crumb rubber substitutes leads her to believe that a grass playing surface is still the best, even when it is treated with pesticides.

“We always promote grass,” she said. “The problem with alternatives is that none of them have been independently tested, so we don’t know the effects of any of them.”

But environmental health expert Susan Buchanan, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the risks are relative. While she’s not crazy about kids playing on a surface that contains carcinogens, she said there’s no proof those chemicals are getting into kids’ bodies. Other materials, though little tested, are even less likely to pose problems, she said.

“I’m not pro-artificial turf,” she said. “I am not on their side. · However, my son plays on artificial turf, and I am not concerned that his risk for cancer is any higher than children who don’t play on it.”

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