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Are Turf Athletic Fields Killing Our Kids?

That is the question raised by ESPN’s E:60, a weekly investigative journalism newsmagazine show. The concern is the crushed rubber commonly used as an infill for the synthetic fields. The material, known as “crumb rubber” is made from crushed used tires. A 2015 study found that the crumb rubber contains 12 known carcinogenic materials. This raises concern due to the exposure caused from inadvertent inhalation of the crumb rubber, ingestion of the crumb rubber, and crumb rubber’s contact with open wounds. Cancer statistics among soccer goalies in the Pacific Northwest who have participated on crumb rubber infilled synthetic fields (a group who likely has the most contact with crumb rubber) are startling and suggest a link between the crumb rubber and cancer.

The last time I played in a competitive football game was December 1999. We (PLU) defeated Rowan in the NCAA Division III National Championship at Salem Stadium in Salem, Virginia. At that time, Salem Stadium was natural turf. That was true with most fields, even in the Pacific Northwest. The synthetic turf popular at that time was much different than the ones used today. It was more like carpet and less like grass. It was popularly known as “astro turf” and did not use the crumb rubber substance. Shortly after I stopped playing competitive football I began seeing the new synthetic fields appear. This new style of synthetic turf was known as “field turf.”  The surfaces looked and felt much more like natural turf. It was applauded as a safer synthetic surface that would greatly decrease injuries, particularly knee injuries which were always a concern with the former astro turf style synthetic field.

By the time I began coaching football at Bellarmine in 2009, field turf fields were the norm and the black crumb rubber was everywhere.  Most local high schools as well as many junior highs have replaced their natural grass and outdated astro turf fields with a field turf crumb rubber infill surface. Natural grass is now the exception. Why is this important? What it tells us is that almost any athlete in the Pacific Northwest today is exposed to the crumb rubber at issue in the E:60 story. All athletes may be exposing themselves to deadly carcinogenic material found in the crumb rubber.

The E:60 story has sparked national concern over the safety of our synthetic athletic fields. The Washington State Department of Health has taken interest in the concerns as well as the EPA. Some have said that the preponderance of the evidence does not show an elevated risk of cancer due to contact with crumb rubber. The reality, however, is the risk of crumb rubber contact increasing an athlete’s risk of cancer has never truly been studied. In the meantime, athletes and children continue to be exposed to the crumb rubber infill on synthetic athletic fields.

A number of weeks ago, Bellarmine played South Kitsap at South Kitsap. South Kitsap had just replaced its natural grass field with a synthetic field turf field. Unlike the others, it did not use crumb rubber as its infill. The infill material almost looked like wood and dirt. I talked to the athletic director at South Kitsap. He explained that this was a new style of infill that was 100% natural. It seemed that a company had realized that using old rubber may not be the safest option. The infill was composed of cork and coconut husk. Maybe the safety of athletes and our children will come down to cork and coconuts instead of used tires?  It seems to make sense.