In response to growing concerns about the safety of using recycled tires in artificial turf in playing fields and playgrounds in the U.S., the Obama administration approved a federal investigation into the surface’s possible health risks. On Feb. 12, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced an “action plan” to study the turf made from ground-up tires and its possible risks to young athletes.
The announcement came three weeks after Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., requested that President Obama spearhead a comprehensive study of crumb rubber playing surfaces. Although previous studies have not shown a danger, they have been limited in scope and according to critics of the turf, did not comprehensively evaluate its health risks.
“Parents and athletes of all ages want and deserve conclusive answers on whether exposure to crumb rubber turf can make one sick,” Nelson told NBC News. “Combining the resources and expertise of three federal agencies to help find those answers is the right thing to do.”
Crumb rubber turf has pieces of tire spread thickly into the surface to provide athletes cushioning and traction. The pieces of rubber, however, frequently end up in players’ mouths, ears and clothing.
The issue of risk first came to the public’s attention in 2014, when Amy Griffin, associate head coach for the University of Washington’s women’s soccer team discovered “a stream of kids” who had played on artificial turf and not long after were diagnosed with cancer. Griffin compiled a list of 38 American soccer players with cancer – 34 of them goalies who spent most of their playing time diving into the turf.
The list now contains the names of more than 200 players, mostly goalies. Blood cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia are the most frequent type of reported illnesses.
The EPA’s involvement in the investigation presents an interesting turn of events. In a 2009 study that is often cited by the artificial turf industry, the EPA found that crumb rubber posed “low levels of concern.” However it later backed off the statement, saying their study was limited in scope and no conclusion could be drawn from it. In addition, the EPA had spent years marketing crumb rubber as a way to reduce the nation’s stockpile of waste tires.
“We’re happy it’s getting this level of attention,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national nonprofit that has fought the EPA since 2009 in its endorsement of ground tires, told the Orange County Register. “What’s unstated is that this is a market largely created by an EPA program.”
The Synthetic Turf Council is also pleased about the federal effort. “We hope the federal government’s involvement, which we have been encouraging for years, will settle this matter once and for all, put parents’ minds at ease, and validate past and recent due diligence by public officials,” the Council said in a statement to NBC News.
The three federal agencies have been tasked with testing different types of crumb rubber to determine what chemical compounds they contain and whether they are released when a person comes in contact with them.
“Once we better understand what chemicals are in are in tire crumb, we will also be able to search existing databases of information to understand the potential health effects of those chemicals,” the agencies said.