Old car and truck tires, pulverized and repurposed, create cushioning in artificial athletic fields nationwide, enabling schools to increase the number of practices and games played, yet the safety of crumb rubber – tiny black rubber particles, called “turf bugs” in the sports community – remains disputed as a purported cause of increased injuries to student athletes. There are also numerous parents, coaches, and physicians nationwide who cite an increase of serious illnesses, including cancer, in those athletes who have played on artificial crumb rubber turf. Yet studies remain ambiguous as more and more school districts add artificial turf to their high school playing fields.
Made of multiple layers, artificial turf systems require a base of drainage material such as stones, followed by a pad of rubber, commonly called the E-layer, topped off by a carpet of synthetic grass blades, which is filled in with crumb rubber, leaving about a half-inch of grass blades on the surface. Artificial turf “is made up, at least in part, of a lot of toxic substances,” said Nick Leonard of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (GLELC), which is affiliated with Wayne State University. Citing a peer review study in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the GLELC reported, “the four metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium), that are commonly found in crumb rubber, have been described as systemic toxicants that are known to induce severe adverse health effects, even at lower levels of exposure.”
The health risks from overexposure to the four metals, which are all listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Carcinogen List and Priority Chemical List, include, “cardiovascular disease, developmental abnormalities, neurologic and neurobehavioral disorders, diabetes, hearing loss, hematologic and immunologic disorders, and various types of cancer,” according to the GLELC.
Under contract from CalRecycle, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), published a brief explanation of a planned study that will evaluate athlete exposure to chemicals released from crumb rubber and artificial turf blades, “in synthetic turf from indoor and outdoor fields throughout California,” it stated. A recent statement from Laura Allen, deputy press secretary for the Environmental Protection Agency, said, “EPA and other federal agencies are collaborating with California as they design and carry out their assessment” of crumb rubber.
The EPA recently stated that previous studies conducted by federal, state and local agencies, including the Consumer Protection Safety Commission and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry “were not sufficient in size or scope, to draw conclusions about the safety of all fields and they cannot fully answer questions that have recently arisen about exposure to tire crumb beads and their potential to be ingested or get under the skin when abrasions occur, and what if any potential risks might be posed from that exposure.”
Yet, the EPA continues to fail to conduct an independent federal study, asserting that “states and local governments are the primary agencies for regulating the management of used tires and have been responsible for assessing the environmental and public health impacts and challenges of managing tire piles, which can be vectors for mosquitoes and/or at risk for tire fires.”
While under scrutiny for safety, artificial fields have gained substantial popularity as a more reliable playing surface than natural grass, and crumb rubber infill is used in over 98 percent of all synthetic turf fields worldwide, according to the Synthetic Turf Council (STC). In addition to other high schools throughout Michigan, almost all high schools in the Oakland Activities Association have ripped up grass fields in favor of installing artificial turf since the 1990s. The list includes all high schools in the districts of Birmingham, Bloomfield, Farmington, Rochester Community Schools, Southfield, Troy, Walled Lake, Waterford, and West Bloomfield, as well as several metro Detroit area private schools including Cranbrook Kingswood, Detroit Country Day School, The Roeper School, and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Preparatory.
“We like that it’s very little maintenance and you can play a lot of games, endless amount of games, and not chew up the fields,” said Mike Cowdrey, athletic director for Bloomfield Hills Schools. “When it’s inclement weather, the (grass) fields get chewed up real quickly with cleats. It’s a huge concern, when running several practices a day on the surface, that we have it stay in good condition.”
The second advantage to using crumb rubber as an infill layer in fake turf is that it enables schools to increase athletic programming, without the risk of large divots or filthy mud pits that often characterize grass fields after a rough winter or an aggressive game played in inclement weather. In comparison to first generation turf, which didn’t have the rubber infill and was akin to playing on cement, the crumb rubber adds cushioning, Cowdrey said.
Touted as cheaper and more durable than grass fields, school staff in various local districts echoed each other in that the primary reason the switch was made from natural grass to synthetic turf is in order to maximize use of the field without losing quality, while also cutting down on weekly maintenance duties, which require the costs of equipment and hours of manpower. A number of Oakland County schools that Downtown Publications contacted, including Rochester Community Schools, Waterford, Farmington, and Troy, switched to artificial fields after voters approved bonding proposals, which funded the synthetic turf installation, along with other improvements to the athletics facilities.
Walled Lake Northern was “originally installed in 2002, but replaced in 2012,” said Bill Chatfield, director of operations for Walled Lake Consolidated Schools.
The “original turf system at Northern cost approximately $750,000 and included grading, drainage, concrete border, etc. Replacement of turf grass cost approximately $425,000, (because we) didn’t need to replace all the infrastructure,” said Judy Evola, spokesperson for Walled Lake Consolidated Schools.
“Western and Central were installed in 2005 as part of the 2004 bond,” said Chatfield. “Ten to 12 years is the expected life of a turf field, but that varies with use. Western and Central are still in pretty good shape and should last several more years.”
Evola said the costs for maintenance with grass ran approximately $25,000 per year including irrigation, fertilizer, striping the lines, and seeding. Maintenance for turf, on the other hand, costs about $10,000 per year for raking, replenishing the rubber infill and occasionally making seam repairs.
Rochester Adams, Rochester High and Stoney Creek put in their new fields in 2005. “They were part of a 2003 bond that renovated the middle schools and updated some athletic facilities,” said Rochester Community Schools enrichment and athletic supervisor Tim Novak.
Farmington Public Schools installed synthetic turf fields one at a time at each of the district’s three high schools after voters approved a 2004 bond proposal. Margaret Tellford, athletics secretary for Farmington, said, “It’s easier to take care of. We supposedly save money on maintenance, and it’s supposedly easier on children, as far as injuries. As a taxpayer here in Farmington, I’m still paying that bond.”
Waterford Mott and Waterford Kettering each got the new synthetic turf fields in 2013. “Those were funded through a 2003 bond, but it was a matter of the economy tanking,” said Rhonda Lessel, school and community services associate director for Waterford School District. “We just sold the last $15 million of the $100 million, which was for a variety of projects.”
The former Andover High School, now the home of Bloomfield Hills High School, had a turf field system installed about a decade ago. A year later, one was installed at the district’s second high school, then known as Lahser, which was replaced with new turf in 2012. Bloomfield Hills' Cowdrey said the district decided by a vote of the members of the board of education to switch to turf.
“It was a large expense,” Cowdrey said. “They represent the voters; I imagine they fielded a large amount of questions.” During the construction of the new, larger high school, Andover’s turf field was replaced. What we did was change it to new carpet that represents the Blackhawks.”
The carpeting on the fields has to be replaced about every decade, he said, and annual maintenance must be done in the interim. “There are companies that come in and sweep the field professionally, and run very large magnets across it for things like track spikes and bobby pins, whatever might fall off an individual and into the carpet. It gets compacted into the crumb rubber,” said Cowdrey. “They vacuum it, and add more crumb rubber. Our maintenance people can sweep and spread crumb rubber, as well.”
Cranbrook Kingswood High School in Bloomfield Hills, which played their homecoming football game in 2013 on the new turf at Del Walden Field in the Thompson Oval, purchased the equipment to do heavy duty cleaning on their own. “We purchased a magnet and one of the brushes and our facilities staff come through regularly,” said Steve Graf, athletic director for Cranbrook's Upper School. “They will clean it before the home game in a couple weeks, and once before we put the turf to bed for winter, and once before spring season. We heard that regular maintenance care can go a long way, and that those who neglect the turf, as it's easy to do, say ‘What happened to our turf?!’”
Graf said their turf field cost around $1 million, and that an alumni donated the majority of resources for the project. “We talked to our booster club about when would we start putting funds aside on an annual basis for new turf. It’s about 40 percent of the cost (of original installation) because you’ve done the drain work and sub prep; but you do have to plan for that. You hope to get 12- to 15-year life out of a turf.”
Detroit County Day School, located in Beverly Hills, installed its first artificial field in 1998 at the school’s Stadium Field, and then replaced it with a new turf in 2011. Other turfs on DCD grounds include Fieldhouse, installed in 2011; Hillview Fields; installed in 2012; and a multipurpose field installed in 2015.
West Bloomfield High School installed its artificial turf about 15 years ago, said athletics secretary Chris Holt. “People wanted to rent it because it was turf. We’ve had work done to it, like patching, but we’ve never replaced it.”
“For Athens (High School) and Troy (High School), at some point they looked at cost, to cut the grass, maintain the grass, and felt that turf would allow sports teams to be on the field longer, and during inclement weather wouldn’t get muddy. The band is on that turf a lot, too,” said Mike Jolly, athletic director for Troy School District, which installed the new fields at both high schools about 15 years ago. “Back in 1999, 2000, it was about a million (dollars) a field. That price came down.”
The Roeper School began renting time on artificial turf from Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac to ensure their players have the field for the hours of practice during the athletic season.
“We’ve rented it for the next 15 years during the athletic seasons,” said Ed Sack, interim athletic director. Roeper has reserved their slot “from 4 to 6 p.m. for three months in the fall and three months in the spring.”
Sack said the community was excited. “We wanted to have assurance we would have a place to have our kids play in the long term.” Roeper had previously been renting time and playing space at St. James Park, behind the YMCA in Birmingham.
None of the schools said they had had an increase in injuries due to play on artificial turfs; neither was there concern over potential risks to their athletes. Most local athletic directors focused on the positive aspects of the turf, and the decreased cost to their school, while nationwide there is an increasing concern over potential health risks to athletes.
Each new synthetic turf field, using crumb rubber infill, utilizes about 40,000 tires, said Nancy Alderman, president of Connecticut-based Environment & Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), a non-profit composed of physicians and public health officials. “Recycling is good, but certain products should never be recycled,” said Alderman. “You shouldn’t recycle lead, you shouldn’t recycle asbestos, and you shouldn’t recycle tires where children play.” EHHI began researching the effects of exposure to ground up rubber tires in 2006.
“We didn’t really think about it,” said GLELC's Leonard of Wayne State. “We saw the benefits of increased usage and lower maintenance responsibility, but didn’t give full consideration of what these fields are made of. The closest we have was a very informal survey conducted by a soccer coach.”
One of the “pros” of such tire repurposing is that it utilizes the endless surplus of scrap tires. “The industry standard is about one (scrapped) tire per person, per year,” said Rhonda Oyer, acting chief of solid waste for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).
About 9.5 million to 10 million tires get scrapped every year in Michigan, according to Oyer. Before Michigan’s Scrap Tire Statute became effective in 1991, and six years after the first scrap tire law was introduced in Minnesota in 1985, “We had 31 million scrap tires piled throughout the state in various places,” Oyer said. “The response was to come up with a law that required proper management, including storage requirements, pile sizes and making sure there were fire lanes because one of the hazards with scrap tires is fire. If they catch, it’s a big problem for air and water. The other big issue caused by unregulated piles of scrap tires is mosquitos and mosquito-borne illness, so it’s a public health issue.” It’s illegal to put a whole tire in the landfill, but “if you cut it in half, you can put it in the landfill.”
The question is, if tires aren't safe enough for landfills and the environment, are they safe enough as a playing field for our children?
Various levels of authority assume the safety of crumb rubber used in the fields is a non-issue, or place the responsibility of investigation on different governing bodies. “We, in Michigan, have not researched it. We basically rely on the EPA and the industry to put together standards for those materials,” said Oyer. “Past studies have not shown there to be any problem with the material.”
According to John Johnson, communications director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), the perspective of the MHSAA is that, “it’s up to the schools to do the research and make the determination. The schools haven’t given the association the authority to tell a school, ‘No, you can’t install that astroturf,’ because there’s a body of thought out there about the long-term effects. If the day were to come when there’s an overwhelming body of evidence that it should go in this direction or that, then the organization may take a stance relative to its tournaments because that’s where our authority is.”
One of the questions posed this October by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to the EPA reads, “What does the Agency know about the incidence (percentage of population by sex and age level) of cancers in the general population? To the best of your knowledge, is the incidence for persons who play on fields treated with crumb rubber higher than in the general population?”
In response, the EPA acknowledged, “The existing studies do not comprehensively address the recently raised concerns about children’s health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”
Consumer Product Safety Commission Chairperson Elliot Kay said, “Our agency is not big enough to do everything we want and need to do. With more funding and more enhanced legal authorities from Congress, the federal government can do far more. Progress will remain slow – and much-needed clarity will be delayed – until Congress finally treats potential exposure to harmful chemicals as the public health priority that is should be.”
“Right now, artificial surfaces find favor with us when selecting football semi-finals in late November and soccer finals in early November,” said MSSAA's Johnson. “It’s a playing surface you can depend on. We’re supportive of anything that schools do that maximize what they’re able to do for their schools and communities.”
Amy Griffin, associate head soccer coach for the University of Washington women’s team, compiled a list of athletes who have developed cancer. To date, she has anecdotal evidence of 38 cases of cancer among soccer players, 34 of which played the position of goalkeeper. “She surveyed soccer players from around the county who played on artificial fields, and she basically found that there was a higher rate of cancer amongst that population, among those players. So everyone is trying to figure out ‘Why these players?’ It begs for more research,” Leonard said.
He continued, “We’re especially concerned about children being exposed when they play on it. A New York state environmental conservation study found a lot of artificial turf fields contain these carcinogens at levels that exceed health-based soil standards. If it was on publicly held land, the state would remove the contaminated soil and replace it with non-contaminated soil.”
Referencing a study conducted by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (NJDHSS), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 2013, stated, “Artificial turf made of nylon or nylon/polyethylene blend [grass] fibers contains levels of lead that pose a potential public health concern.”
It went on to say, “as the turf ages and weathers, lead is released in dust that could then be ingested or inhaled, and the risk for harmful exposure increases.” It also noted that, “fields that are old, that are used frequently, and that are exposed to the weather break down into dust as the turf fibers are worn.”
Bernadette Burden of the CDC said, “The NJDHSS assisted the EPA in a study of a scrap metals yard in Newark, New Jersey, and collected and tested dust and fibers from a neighboring turf field, where children play.”
“The department found high lead levels in the turf fibers, and recommended the field be closed, which was done,” noted a 2008 press release from New Jersey’s Department of Health. For the study, the department used the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s residential soil clean up criteria for lead of 400 mg/Kg.
Burden said “The ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) International published a standard for lead in synthetic turf which limits the lead content of the ‘grass blades’ to no more than 300 mg/kg.”
However, those standards are voluntary, not forced. The standard was created after a request was made in 2008 by the CPSC, an agency charged with the responsibility of protecting consumers. After the discovery of elevated levels of lead in the New Jersey study, CPSC stated, “Staff is asking that voluntary standards be developed for synthetic turf to preclude the use of lead in future products. As turf is used during athletics or for play and exposed over time to sunlight, heat and other weather conditions, the surface of the turf may start to become worn and small particles of the lead-containing synthetic grass fibers might be released.”
“The majority of peer-review published studies focus on the off-gassing of chemical constituents and the potential leaching of chemicals in crumb rubber infill,” said Burden. She cited a study published in 2010 from a journal on occupational health which concluded, “This study provides evidence that uptake of PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) of football players active on artificial grass fields with rubber crumb infill is minimal.”
“Not one study out of the 51 we cite and make available on our website warns against a serious elevated human health or environmental risk from synthetic turf,” said a March 2015 post by Synthetic Turf Council, which is composed of executives from the rubber and synthetic grass industries. “No one study will ever provide a definitive overview on every aspect of research that could be analyzed related to synthetic turf. That is the nature of scientific research; there can always be one more study and one more opportunity for review.”
Leonard, of the GLELC, said, “Typically, artificial turf increases usage, and has a lower maintenance responsibility, and those are great. But everyone would agree that talking about the safety of our kids, especially in relations to cancer, you want to make sure you’re making the right decision. You can go back and, if you find artificial turf is safe, you can put it in later. But you can’t go back and help the child that has cancer or lead poisoning. Those are so much more severe and serious.”