Crumb rubber has been an industry standard for almost two decades, and the placement of up to 40,000 finely ground used tires per field, acts as a cushioning agent on synthetic turf fields and playgrounds. But is it toxic? On one hand, there are many studies held up by industry, that have not found an elevated health risk from exposure to the tiny granulated particles. Many, although not all of these studies, have been funded by those connected to the synthetic turf industry. On the other hand, more and more health professionals, including experts on children’s environmental exposures from Mt. Sinai Hospital, are voicing extreme concern over exposure, particularly in children, to the known carcinogens, endocrine distributors, neuro-toxins, and toxic heavy metals, contained within the finely ground tire mixture. This concern is partly fueled by the growing number of cancer cases in children and young adults who were frequently exposed to the recycled rubber surfaces. Additionally, some, including The Concussion Institute, are saying that crumb rubber is not necessarily the best product for concussion protection.
So, who do parents rely on for guidance? Like many other communities across the country, Edmonds residents are wrestling with that question. We have witnessed this issue unfold firsthand, and like other communities, it has not been without controversy. The issue surfaced locally about a year ago, with the plans for new turf fields at two local high schools. In the past year we have taken concerns to our school district, city council, health commission, state board of health, state legislatures, as well as the federal agencies tasked with protecting the public. At times we have been dismissed… but, there has been progress made as the message is shared that these fields, which so many assume are safe, may very likely present a serious health risk.
Locally, the City of Edmonds has enacted a precautionary 18-month ban on the use of crumb rubber, while the issue is reviewed and alternatives are analyzed. The Edmonds School District, however, has chosen to continue its use of the controversial substance. There are more field projects coming up and the school district is being encouraged to form a “Turf Advisory Committee” which would be made up of various stakeholders. Such a committee would help ensure open and transparent sharing of information, as well as robust public participation; ensuring that all aspects of the issue are fully considered.
At the state level, the Washington Department of Health is currently investigating if soccer players who played on crumb rubber fields have higher rates of cancer. They are currently collecting data and expect early results within three to six months. Additionally, lawmakers in Washington State introduced two bills this session, HB 2547 and SB 6540. The bills were drafted to provide some protection and to direct an assessment of and encourage the use of safer infill material, during the wait for comprehensive health risk studies to be completed. As a result of strong lobbying against the bills, neither made it out of committee; though each branch has agreed to a study session later in the season.
Some of the strongest lobbying against legislative protection came from Michael Peterson, a regulatory toxicologist with Gradient Corp — the same firm hired to provide a toxicology report on crumb rubber to the Verdant Health Commission. Peterson was in Olympia representing the Recycled Rubber Council, for which he is now a paid adviser. According to Richard Clapp, professor of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, “Gradient’s game is product defense. Its services include promoting industry positions in op-eds, providing expert testimony in court, legislative, and regulatory proceedings, and issuing scientific reports…. They wind up defending people who are worried about liability,” Clapp says, “though they would say they’re there to make sure that there’s sound science behind whatever regulatory steps or litigation happens in this country.” Gradient is the main focus in the recent series by The Center for Public Integrity titled: “Science for Sale.”
At the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just announced it is launching a federally coordinated action plan to study crumb rubber turf fields and playgrounds. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s, will be part of the effort. According to Elliott Kaye, Chairman of the CPSC, there is a growing number of cancer cases in children and young adults who were exposed to the recycled rubber surfaces for prolonged periods of time and with the product being used on playgrounds and athletic fields, the long term health effects are impacting children of all ages. The EPA states that although current studies have not shown a correlation between cancer, or other diseases, the studies do not comprehensively address recent health concerns; specifically, the growing list of young athletes with cancer.
Previously, the EPA had endorsed the use of crumb rubber as a viable way to dispose of millions of used tires, as well as a way to reduce injury, but some of its own scientists have pointed to research suggesting potential hazards from exposure to crumb rubber. Among this research is the 2012 study: Hazardous Organic Chemicals in Rubber Recycled Tire Playgrounds and Pavers- which concluded that the “presence of a high number of harmful compounds, frequently at high or extremely high levels, in these recycled rubber materials. Therefore. They should be carefully controlled and their final use should be restricted or even prohibited in some cases”, and a very recent 2015 study: Release of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and HeavyMetals from Rubber Crumb in Synthetic Fields– which concluded that “the recent study demonstrate that PAH’s are continuously released from rubber through evaporation. Athletes frequenting grounds with synthetic turf are therefore exposed to chronic toxicity from PAH’s.”
It is well known that getting rid of used tires has been an environmental issue for many decades. According to Jeff Ruch, a lawyer with environmental advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the use of tires on playfields “was a solution to a solid waste problem that had a public-health blind spot.” He goes on to say “The way we do things in this country, we for the most part operate on the principle that a chemical is innocent until proven guilty. It goes into the stream of commerce and only if it produces a body count is there than any sort of regulatory response. Despite promoting that practice, EPA had never done a risk assessment.” As for the recent Federal announcement, Ruch states that the incoming study results are likely to raise more questions than they answer.
So, what do parents do while we wait for answers? Jefferson Ketchel, a Snohomish County Health District health director, has the following advice for those concerned about crumb rubber fields: wash hands after playing on the fields and before eating, change out of their sports clothing before entering the home, shower after playing on the fields, carefully clean any cuts or scrapes, and spit out any tiny rubber particles they get in their mouths. I am among a growing group of parents who have opted to take a more precautionary approach: keeping our children off of these fields all together. For some of us it means focusing on sports that are not played on turf, while we advocate for safer alternatives, and wait for an answer to the question so many are asking — “Are these fields safe?”
— By Laura Johnson
An Edmonds mom of three, Laura Johnson is a member of the Washington Alliance for Non-toxic Play and Athletic Fields and the national Safe Healthy Playing Fields Coalition.