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“Turf Wars” comes to the UK: Do crumb rubber turfs pose a danger to athletes?

Monday, 21 March 2016

A spate of articles have been published in the British press in the last month1 on the alleged health concerns over “crumb rubber,” the tiny bits of ground-up tyres found in some types of synthetic playing field turfs.

Football players and others are familiar with crumb rubber – synthetic turf pitches and fields are highly useful because they minimize maintenance and allow players to play year round, even in difficult weather as in Scotland. But the tiny bits of rubber are loose in the grass and can adhere to clothing or hands.

Questions are being raised over whether the rubber particles are exposing children and athletes to carcinogens and whether they are safe to play on. The issue has been highlighted in the UK by the case of Lewis Maguire's,2 whose father Nigel Maguire – the former chief executive of the National Health Service in the north of England – publically claimed last month that his son's cancer is directly related to playing football on synthetic turf pitches.

Even more recently, the European Commission asked the European Chemicals Agency in mid-March to begin an investigation of health risks associated with artificial turf pitches.3 This flurry of concern may be relatively new to the UK, but it has been going on for several years in the U.S. Advocacy groups began raising questions as early as 2007, after which reports began to circulate of US football (soccer) players with cancers. The reports prompted NBC News to run a feature story4 in the fall of 2014 and another series a year later about the possible risks of crumb rubber fields.

The count of soccer players with cancer is alleged to be over 150 today,5 the majority of them goalies – a claimed “cluster” that the media and activists believe may demonstrate a link between crumb rubber exposure and cancer.

U.S. health agencies are now engaged – the California health board is conducting a three-year investigation,6 the U.S. Congress requested White House and federal agency intervention, and recently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Centers for Disease Control announced a joint investigative effort.7

All of this activity, surprisingly, is over a hard, rubber-bound material similar to the tyres we drive on every day. Health boards for the U.S., Canada, Norway,8 and several states (e.g., California,9 New York,10 Massachusetts, and Connecticut) have largely found that the studies conducted to date do not raise cause for concern and that crumb rubber should be safe to play on.

The U.S.-based Synthetic Turf Council reports 50 such studies to date.11 The UK’s Football Association recently joined in the conclusion that 3G pitches are safe.12 The studies indicate that carcinogens exist in crumb rubber, but in such small amounts and bound up in the rubber such that any release would be far below levels of concern: the Connecticut Department of Public Health stating, “outdoor artificial turf fields do not represent an elevated health risk.”13

Concerns being raised in the media are speculative, though, and in the authors’ view based on the fear that something might be going on that the studies missed. The claimed cases of soccer/football players with cancers sound frightening – yet cancer is a common disease, and without a competent study linking the disease to synthetic turf exposures, there is no credible evidence to date indicating that the reported group of cancers is more than a collection of unfortunate but random cancers. Nonetheless, many communities in the U.S. are under severe pressure from parents and advocacy groups to find an alternative substance or to put warning signs on these fields.

The course of events in the UK may similarly result in actions against football clubs and communities who are currently using or wish to install crumb rubber fields. The results of the California and federal investigations in the U.S. will be influential.

In the interim, the football associations in Scotland and England have expressed confidence in crumb rubber turf.14 Unless investigations demonstrate credible evidence of actual harm, presumably the unsupported fear of crumb rubber will not unduly induce parents to stop their children from participating in football and other highly beneficial fitness activities on crumb rubber fields.

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