Sunday, November 1, 2015

How Safe is Artificial Turf?

There is a well intentioned women's soccer coach from the University of Washington who has brought up the possibility that the new generation of artificial turf is causing cancer in young athletes.  The first generations of artificial turf (AstroTurf) were thought to cause too many injuries in the athletes.  These surfaces were painful to play on and brought on a host of new injuries (rug burn, turf toe, etc...).  Enter the new generation of artificial turf, a combination of subsurface of stone and recycled rubber covered by artifical blades of grass and an in-fill of crumb rubber made from old tires.  These new surfaces decrease landfill use by re-using old tires.  They significantly decrease the use of water and fertilizer.  They decrease the maintenance costs.  But are they safe?  Athletes will spend countless hours sliding, diving and rolling around on these fields.  They will come home with black rubber granules embedded in their elbows, knees and shins.  They will end up with them in their ears, nose and mouth.  Along with Coach Griffin, there are a number of watchdog groups that have continued to advocate for young athletes by questioning if chemicals released by the re-purposed rubber is causing cancer.

The publicity was bad enough that a principal of a Maine elementary school wrote to the company that installed the Rubercycle surface at her school.  The school was searching for data to make an informed decision on weather to remove the existing playground surface.  The response she received was not from the company but from a Toxicologist from MIT and an environmental risk assessment firm.  Attached is her thorough and thoughtful review of the current research, leading her to the conclusion:
"... I have examined the relevant evidence, and have found that rubber mulch is neither known nor reasonably expected to cause cancer, and is otherwise safe for use in playgrounds. I know of no reason that this mulch should be removed from the playground at Jonesport Elementary School."

This response was fairly convincing and consistent with any scientific evidence that I have read. If you want more information on the subject, the Synthetic Turf Council summarizes a number of the recent research efforts.