Is Synthetic Turf Making Athletes Sick? - Diverse Health

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Is Synthetic Turf Making Athletes Sick?


by Debbie Cafazzo, Associated Press

TACOMA, Wash. — Their son is gone.

Luke Beardemphl, a standout Tacoma soccer player during his years at Stadium High School, died last year at 24, following a seven-year battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

But Luke’s parents, Mike and Stephanie Beardemphl, now worry about the kids who will come after him, running, rolling and diving into the more than 11,000 artificial turf soccer fields around the country — including at more than a dozen schools in the Tacoma School District — just as their goalkeeper son did.

Most of those synthetic turf fields are cushioned with a material called crumb rubber, made from ground-up used tires. The tiny pellets are loosely distributed as infill between artificial blades of grass woven into a carpet-like base. Modern turf fields are the successors to the original 1960s-era AstroTurf. Athletes who play on today’s fields that use crumb rubber infill are familiar with the “little black dots” that are kicked up during a game or practice, reported The News Tribune.

Families such as the Beardemphls have added their voices to a growing chorus of concern about whether the rubber specks that stick to skin, hair and clothing, and that get in players’ eyes, mouths and open wounds, contain toxic substances that contribute to cancer in young athletes.

“To me it’s obvious,” said Stephanie Beardemphl. “There is a problem, and there needs to be more action by the government.”
Her husband, Mike, compares crumb rubber to materials like asbestos or the pesticide DDT — both thought to be useful products until their dangers were discovered.


Synthetic turf and crumb rubber became popular with schools and parks throughout the country during the 1990s, and recycling used tires was billed as positive for the environment.

Groundskeepers liked that it didn’t need water, fertilizer or herbicides, never needed mowing and could withstand year-round use — even in the soggy Northwest.

The Atlanta-based industry group known as the Synthetic Turf Council maintains that crumb rubber has been well-studied for decades in the United States and Europe and that dozens of studies have failed to prove a link between crumb rubber infill on sports fields and cancer.

They point to studies such as one from Connecticut in 2010 that found playing on synthetic turf fields containing crumb rubber did not elevate health risks. However, the Connecticut researchers also noted that their study was limited to measuring chemicals from five artificial turf fields, and did not explore the potential risks of ingestion or skin exposure. They called for more study.

Other studies have been conducted in New York, New Jersey and by federal agencies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb, but the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”
In February, the federal government announced a new study that will try to probe more deeply.

Industry representatives say they welcome examination of their product.

“We have consistently said that we support all additional research,” a turf council statement reads. “At the same time, we strongly reaffirm that the existing studies clearly show that artificial turf fields and playgrounds with crumb rubber are safe and have no link to any health issues.”

The turf council points out that the same kind of recycled rubber used on synthetic turf fields is used to make a variety of other products, including sneakers and garden hoses.

But those kinds of reassurances don’t satisfy critics.


Concerns about the safety of crumb rubber first took root in Washington state.

In 2009, University of Washington soccer coach Amy Griffin was thinking about two soccer goalkeepers she knew who had been diagnosed with lymphoma. One of the players mentioned the ubiquitous “little black dots,” wondered what was in them and whether they might have something to do with her illness.

Griffin didn’t think much about it at first.

“I thought I would find out and be able to tell parents, ‘We’re all good. No need for concern,’“ Griffin said.
After doing some reading, she discovered her players were running around on fields made in part from used tires.
Griffin, a graduate of Federal Way’s Decatur High School, played club soccer as a teen, college soccer at the University of Central Florida and then landed a spot as goalkeeper on the U.S. National Team. She was part of the team that won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991.

She came to the UW several years later. During her early years there, Griffin said, she didn’t know any young people with cancer. But that began to change over time. She often went along when Husky soccer players went on goodwill visits to kids at Seattle Children’s hospital.

One year, she visited four young soccer players with cancer. Three were goalkeepers.

“I kept asking people, ‘Don’t you think this is weird?’“ Griffin recalled. “I kept bumping into more and more people.”
She decided to make a list, starting with perhaps 13 or 14 cancer patients, “mostly people I knew personally or had met at Children’s.”

On a yellow legal pad, she recorded their names, their diagnosis and contact information. Griffin’s optimism began to fade, and — remembering the comment from her ill player about the little black dots — she started raising questions about the safety of crumb rubber.

After she raised those questions during an NBC News broadcast in 2014, ill soccer players and families from around the country began getting in touch with her to relate their stories.

“I had no idea it was going to grow that big,” Griffin said. “It became like a second job, with people reaching out to me.”
The list outgrew Griffin’s legal pad. Someone helped her create a website to collect the information.
Griffin’s list grew to contain 220 athletes — soccer players, football players, lacrosse, field hockey and baseball players. About 55 are from Washington state, including Luke Beardemphl.

Griffin freely acknowledges her collection of names is anecdotal, rather than scientific. Still, the list has drawn the attention of the state Department of Health.

State officials are working with the UW’s School of Public Health to review the list and compare it to the state’s cancer registry, which includes information on all cancer cases reported in the state.

They want to know whether there’s an increased rate of cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia among soccer players – especially goalkeepers.

“We are looking at this as an investigation,” said Cathy Wasserman, a state epidemiologist. “We want to see if soccer players get cancer more frequently than the general population.”

Griffin notes that a disproportionate number of the athletes with cancer on her list are soccer goalkeepers. That raises even more questions, she said.

“There are only one or two on a team of 20,” she said.

Why goalkeepers? Griffin’s theory is that they spend more time diving into the playing surface and the crumb rubber than players in field positions.

“We get it in our eyes, in our open wounds,” she said. “It smells like a tire factory. I can smell it when I’m down there.”
Wasserman notes that some cancers affect young people more than others. Hodgkin disease, for example, is most common in two age groups: adolescents and young adults, and adults in their 50s.

The Health Department hopes to have its statistical analysis completed by the end of the year. And officials say they are continuing to monitor other research.

Lauren Jenks, director of the Health Department’s Office for Environmental Public Health Sciences, said state health officials have reviewed the studies done on crumb rubber.

“We concluded, looking at the information that’s available, that people are not getting exposed to toxic chemicals while they are playing on the fields,” she said, adding that some substances found in crumb rubber are present in the air.
The hypothesis that young soccer players are being affected by toxic substances from synthetic turf fields is one among many, Wasserman said. Players who get cancer could have other factors in common, such as genetics or other environmental factors. Those need to be explored in more in-depth studies, she said.


With so many questions about crumb rubber being raised — including from members of Congress — the federal government this year began an effort to answer them.

The study involves the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The purpose of the multiagency work is to fill in data gaps, catalog what substances are found in crumb rubber and identify ways in which people might be exposed to it.

By the end of this year, the agencies are scheduled to release a draft report that describes their findings and outlines additional research needs.

In California, environmental health officials are evaluating the health effects of crumb rubber in a major new study.
It aims to identify and quantify the chemicals that might be released from crumb rubber, as well as in the artificial grass blades that have come under fire in the past as possible sources of lead contamination.

In addition to natural rubber, says the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, crumb rubber contains synthetic polymers, carbon black, metals and additives, some of which are known to pose human health risks.

Carbon black, produced by the incomplete burning of petroleum products, is classified as a possible carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. Producers of the material note that the evidence comes mainly from animal rather than human studies.
Other avenues to be explored by California researchers:

– Synthetic turf fields heat up in the sun, and elevated temperatures might alter the amount and types of chemicals released.
– Dust and vapors generated from crumb rubber can be inhaled, and crumb rubber particles can be ingested.
– Exposure also might occur through contact with eyes, skin or through scrapes acquired during athletic play.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is assisting in the three-year California study, scheduled to conclude in 2018.
The Synthetic Turf Council says it welcomes the new research efforts and hopes the new studies will “settle this matter once and for all, put parents’ minds at ease, and validate past and recent due diligence by public officials.”
Doctors often can’t pinpoint the precise cause of cancer in an individual, but suspect a combination of genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors that are not always well understood.

Dr. Archie Bleyer, a longtime researcher in the field of childhood and adolescent cancer and a clinical research professor at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, posted a letter to the public about the crumb rubber controversy in June.
He noted that certain types of cancer in adults can be caused by cumulative exposure over many years to cancer-causing agents such as tobacco, asbestos and other factors.

But in children and adolescents, he wrote, “research has been unable to identify environmental exposures that might explain more than a small fraction of observed cases.”

Instead, he added, researchers conclude that “virtually all cancer in the young is a mistake of nature.”
Bleyer says it’s understandable that families whose children have cancer want something to blame. But, he adds, “the notion that synthetic turf fields cause cancer in the young is another example of the need to attribute blame.”

He says limiting physical activity of young people because of fears over playing fields would cause greater harm to their health.


The UW’s Griffin would like to see crumb rubber disappear, replaced by natural grass fields or artificial turf with organic materials. She notes that some public bodies are waiting until the new studies are complete to make that decision.
“I’m like, ‘Why wait for the study?’“ she said.

Her Husky players compete on a grass field at home, but their practice field is artificial turf with crumb rubber. She tells her goalkeepers to wear long pants and long sleeves. In an hour’s practice, she says, “it’s crazy how many times they hit the ground.”