The crumb rubber artificial turf fiasco

December 1, 2015

A majority of local public and private schools we spoke with while writing a story for this issue on the safety of crumb rubber artificial turf athletic fields acknowledged they had installed the fields after only looking at improved maintenance costs, not considering whether there could be health costs to the student athletes. 

Crumb rubber turf is a form of synthetic turf field which utilizes about 40,000 tires which are crumbled up to fill in between artificial strands of grass.

The fact is that no one seems to know whether these athletic fields are actually a “good buy” – because no one knows if they are safe over the long run for students to be playing on. 

A New York state environmental conservation study found a lot of artificial turf fields contain 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,” said Nick Leonard of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (GLELC), affiliated with Wayne State University. Artificial turf “is made up, at least in part, of a lot of toxic substances,” including lead, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium, all of which are commonly found in crumb rubber. Leonard said they “have been described as systemic toxicants that are known to induce severe adverse health effects, even at lower levels of exposure.” 

A soccer coach for the University of Washington women’s team compiled a list of athletes who have developed cancer, with evidence of 38 cases of cancer among soccer players, 34 of which played the position of goalkeeper. 

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,” acknowledged Rhonda Oyer, acting chief of solid waste for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

That's frightening. When contacted, federal agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assumed states were monitoring this. State agencies, including the MDEQ and the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), said they thought locals should be viewing studies on crumb rubber fields. Local schools don't have the ability nor the resources to conduct research, and have relied upon state experts. The fact is, no one knows who's on first. This cycle of passing the buck of responsibility must stop.

The MHSAA stated this turf is preferable for tournaments, because it holds up better in rain and snow. Instead of worrying about tournaments, the MHSAA should take a leadership role, working with other states as they did on concussions, helmet rules and goggles for women's lacrosse players, and develop rules and standards on how best to protect student athletes as they compete in their sport and represent their school.

Frankly, we found the position of the MHSAA deplorable – basically suggesting that it is up to local schools to do the research and make the determination. Who are local school districts to turn to but the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which should be concerned about more than just scheduling tournaments?

Shame too, on the EPA and MDEQ. While recycling is commendable, recycling tires into a potential public health hazard is no more desirable than recycling asbestos. It is illegal to dump a whole tire in a landfill; they are extremely toxic to air quality when burning. 

One of the questions posed this October by the House Energy and Commerce Committee to the EPA stated, “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.” 

The time is long overdue for definitive research and in-depth studies on crumb rubber turf fields at the state and national levels to see if this artificial turf is really worth it for local school athletic fields when weighed against potential threats to the health of student athletes.

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