Every single day, all year round, athletes practice, condition, and compete on our turf fields. Whether you’re a soccer, rugby, or softball player, those tiny little pellets on the surface of the field are either lodged in the bottom of your cleats, stuck onto your shins, nested in your hair or even up your nose. Hundreds of students and staff come into contact with this substance daily. While this may sound harmless, there is a growing concern that turf rubber may be linked to cancer.
Toorno Mishra, a current JV rugby player says, “If there really is a connection, schools need to know and do something about it.”
Commonly known as “crumb rubber,” these smalls black dots made from recycled tires are used as a fill between the artificial blades of grass. The technology became increasingly popular in the mid-2000s. It was so popular that a few years ago, SAS planted a new synthetic field right in our backyard.
The concept was very attractive: AstroTurf fields provided benefits ranging from cost reduction to softening the impact on the players. With SAS hosting multiple contact sports, investing in a new field seemed like an advantageous decision at the time. But is there a threat of danger that is associated with these fields?
In 2009, Amy Griffin, the associate head coach for the Woman’s University of Washington soccer team, visited two soccer goalkeepers in the hospital who were being treated for lymphoma. While she was there, a nurse working at that hospital shared with her a peculiar pattern. Within one week, she had been assigned to four soccer goalkeepers, all diagnosed with the same form of cancer. All four of the players practiced on turf fields.
One of the Griffin’s players and a cancer patient shared a bad feeling “it has something to do this those black dots.” Subsequently, Griffin assembled a list of “38 American soccer players — 34 of them goalies — who have been diagnosed with cancer,” according to NBC News.
Anthony Wong, Director or Facilities at SAS, responded to questions regarding the safety of the artificial fields, “The report is just one person’s experience in a community where several students were diagnosed with cancer. The article did not cite any scientific studies supporting the assertions.”
Currently there is no research to prove that correlation equals causation.
Dr. Joel Forman, an environmental health expert at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, stated that “there is no evidence to rely on regarding cancer risks.” He, however, also called the crumb rubber a “potential” cancer risk.
It certainly makes you wonder what these tiny pieces of tire can really do to you. Not only can it cut your skin or come in contact with your eyes and mouth, but these tires–when under heated environments–can release gases. NBC stated that studies have found that rubber on fields can reach much higher temperatures, thus causing chemicals from the crumb rubber to contaminate the air we breathe. The tires contain a variety of carcinogens such as benzene, black carbon, mercury and lead. As of now, there is no proof that these gases are directly linked to cancer.
“As part of the softball team, I’m on that field usually around February to April every year. We have practice at least four times a week. So far I have not heard of any risks from the overexposure of turf,” said Tiffany Yu, a four year athlete.
Currently, multiple organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency are working to develop more research on the subject matter. The California Environmental Protection Agency Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health have determined through their studies that “health risks to children resulting from the ingestion of crumb rubber are low.”
Many public and private schools in the United States aren’t going to take the risk, even if it’s small or non-existent, and are now investing in new forms of turf fields. One of the schools, Kennedy Catholic High School in Washington State, recently invested in an alternative flooring plan known as “Nike Grind.” This surface is made out of recycled sneakers instead of tires. The new surface is tested against Nike’s Restricted Substance List–fundamentally ensuring that no harmful chemicals are present within the recycled particles.
Wong shared news that may be reassuring to some parents and students: “For SAS, our two newest fields (MS field and new baseball field) use a biodegradable material. The large field and the ES play fields use the black rubber. Now that we have an alternative (biodegradable) material – a development over the last few years – we will be using it for any future field renewals.”