(NaturalNews) If you visit a soccer field at a school, park or even professional stadium, you might think at first glance that it is covered with carefully mowed grass. But more than likely, you are looking at a synthetic turf field made with a controversial substance that has been accused of producing cancer in young athletes.
These artificial fields consists of green plastic fibers embedded in a cushioned layer. It’s the under layer, made from ground up tires (known as crumb rubber) that’s the center of the controversy.
Tires, of course, are petrochemical products that contain substantial levels of a variety of different toxins.
Clouds of carcinogens
Crumb rubber hit the news in a big way when University of Washington women’s soccer coach Amy Griffin drew a connection between the growing use of crumb rubber turf and a rise in cases of lymphoma among young players, particularly goalies. Others came forward with anecdotal evidence supporting an epidemic of lymphoma among young adult goalies.
Regular use of a crumb rubber soccer field causes clouds of black particulate matter to fly into the air, coating the children’s bodies and perhaps even entering their lungs. These particles are trekked into their homes on their shoes, hair and clothing. Some people have raised concern that they may also enter the blood via the tiny abrasions and cuts that are a natural consequence of sports practice.
Griffin and others have wondered if a spike in cancer rates among goalies might be in part because these players must regularly hurl themselves directly in to the turf and make other harsh movements that dislodge large quantities of crumb rubber.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had previously declared crumb rubber safe, it reopened investigation into the product following Griffin’s allegations.
Since then, it has become clear that there is almost no research on the long-term health effects of regular exposure to crumb rubber or crumb rubber particulate.
“I’ve heard people say, you know, this has been proven safe, this is something you can put on the shelf, you don’t need to worry about this,” said Tina CoyneSmith, whose children play on elite soccer leagues in Chapel Hill, N.C. “But really, this is not the concern of an anxious soccer mom.”
Crumb rubber is known to contain the carcinogens benzene, carbon black and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Some fields have been shut down after they were found to contain elevated levels of lead.
Children used as guinea pigs
In spite of these concerns, the use of crumb rubber fields continues to rise. It is cheap to install, requires no maintenance, and is unaffected by heavy rains and flooding that might cause the shutdown of natural fields.
Since the 1990s, more than 10,000 crumb rubber sports fields have been installed across the United States. Playgrounds have also started using crumb rubber as ground cover, raising concerns about exposure by even younger children, including toddlers and infants.
Andrew Baron of Apex, N.C., is one parent who refuses to allow his children to play on artificial turf, and will not let them join teams that use those fields. CoyneSmith said this option is not available for children who play at the elite level.
Baron is also part of a group campaigning to get city and town councils to stop using crumb rubber fields. Critics of crumb rubber have noted that other artificial turf options are available, such as a cork-coconut mix known as “corkonut.” These turfs are more expensive than crumb rubber, however.
Baron’s home town recently rejected such appeals, however, installing a brand new crumb rubber field at Hunter Street Park.
“I can’t understand why they would do that because to me they’re using our kids as guinea pigs really,” he said. “They don’t really know what the long term effects are going to be when they’re making these decisions.”
But some areas have started to reject crumb rubber. In 2008, New York City stopped installing new crumb rubber fields, and the Los Angeles Unified School District followed suit in 2009. Sweden, Norway, and some other European countries have banned crumb rubber altogether.