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Digging Deeper into the Synthetic Turf Debate: State and Federal Agencies Take Action

February 16, 2016

FieldTurf_at_53rd_Avenue_Park_-_Hillsboro,_OregonEvery day, across America, millions of children take to synthetic turf fields filled with recycled crumb from spent tires. Due to a number of high-profile news reports – namely from NBC, ABC, and ESPN – parents want to know if synthetic turf is safe or toxic to children’s health. The short answer: we, the public, don’t know. But we’re getting closer to finding out. State and federal agencies are mobilizing significant resources to conduct more comprehensive studies than any previously done on the hazards of turf, and specifically on the recycled crumb rubber that athletes shake out of their cleats and socks after every practice or game.

University of Washington soccer coach, Amy Griffin, spurred national alarm about the issue of crumb rubber used as turf infill. After noticing what she thought was a strange trend – the unusually high number of goalkeepers receiving treatment for cancer at the Seattle Children’s Hospital – Griffin began making a list.

An ESPN E:60 story, Turf Wars, reports that Griffin, “took the names and personal info for every athlete with cancer she met.” According to ESPN, as of November, 2015, Griffin’s list had grown to 187 athletes. Of 150 soccer players, 95 were goalkeepers, the athletes who generally spend the most time in direct contact with the turf.

Such a list doesn’t incriminate synthetic turf. The list could represent a coincidental, or even biased, sample of individuals. But it could also point to a scary truth about the hazard of a common exposure to a common material. Either way, Griffin’s list points to the critical and urgent need for more research.

Both state and federal agencies are responding to this need. In the state of Washington, the Department of Health is currently comparing Griffin’s list to the state cancer registry to see if her numbers represent a significant deviation from the norm. The department expects results this year.

In California, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) will soon be conducting a two year study on the health effects of synthetic turf, and have added playground mats made of recycled crumb rubber to the study. OEHHA already solicited public input on the draft testing plan, and are currently convening a panel of scientific experts in exposure and biomedical sciences to advise development of the final study design. OEHHA is currently gathering stakeholder input to guide the study. According to the OEHHA, the study is comprised of five separate tasks: 1) expert and stakeholder input and consultation, 2) hazard identification, 3) exposure scenario development, 4) sampling and analysis of new and in-field synthetic turf, and 5) biomonitoring study protocol development. The study hopes to provide definitive results by 2018.

Under pressure from congress, news outlets, and parent groups, federal agencies are finally taking action. On February 12, three federal agencies announced that they are teaming up for an investigation. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced an Action Plan to assess: the chemicals in crumb rubber, the ways in which people may be exposed to those chemicals, and ultimately the risk of such exposure.

The plan states, “Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb, but the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”

An NBC story on the new action plan suggests that the Synthetic Turf Council, the leading industry group for synthetic turf, supports the federal effort to know more about the health risks of turf. Meanwhile, the industry group can continue to point to a number of past studies that fail to prove a link between exposure to synthetic turf or crumb rubber and long term health effects. NBC quotes this statement by the Synthetic Turf Council: “We strongly reaffirm that the existing studies clearly show that artificial turf fields and playgrounds with crumb rubber infill are safe and have no link to any health issues. We hope the federal government’s involvement, which we have been encouraging for years, will settle this matter once and for all, put parents’ minds at ease, and validate past and recent due diligence by public officials.”

According to current federal law, the Toxics Substances Control Act, consumer products and the chemicals they contain are innocent until proven guilty. But a number of municipalities throughout the country are taking preemptive and precautionary action by banning the use of crumb rubber in their city parks and schools. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District and New York City Department of Parks and Recreation have both banned building fields with crumb rubber infill. In addition, public and private organizations are opting to install turf fields that use non-toxic or organic infill.


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-Cyrus Philbrick

Communications Manager

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