OPINION: Enough is enough on synthetic turf safety debate

In any “debate” there is a point when the evidence must be considered sufficient to declare the case closed. When it comes to the specter of health concerns associated with the recycled rubber infill found in synthetic turf fields and playgrounds, we have reached and passed that stage.

Nevertheless, questions persist from some corners — largely driven by the existence of an admittedly anecdotal, unscientific list purporting to demonstrate a possible relationship between youth cancer cases and playing sports on turf fields. Headlines in the media playing up the provocative nature of these claims have created a self-perpetuating cycle of anxiety and concern among parents. The result was the February 2016 launch of a multi-agency federal study of recycled rubber led by the EPA.

This study has cast a cloud of indefinite uncertainty over recycled rubber, while numerous delays have hamstrung the study’s progress. As a result, these products have been relegated to a form of regulatory purgatory as decision-makers at schools and towns were deprived of the clarity needed to move forward on many field projects.

However, since the commencement of the study a litany of literature has emerged demonstrating that as far as science and the facts are concerned, the question has been answered.

First, the false notion that any causal relationship could be inferred from the list was laid to rest when the Washington Department of Health (DOH) conducted an investigation that found prevalence of cancers among soccer players, select and premier players, and goalkeepers reported on the list was actually lower than expected given local background cancer rates. The DOH made its takeaway crystal clear by recommending that “…people who enjoy soccer continue to play irrespective of the type of field surface.”

Shortly thereafter, a Harvard faculty member — and former director of risk communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (part of the Harvard School of Public Health) — analyzed the DOH investigation and went a step further. He suggested that communities across the country struggle with “misguided citizen science” when it comes to recycled rubber infill. Investigators, he pointed out, discovered players on the list had in fact spent the majority of their time playing on natural grass fields. Moreover, “Sadly, but not unsurprisingly, this [DOH] reassuring finding has gotten far less attention in the media than the more alarming news about a cancer cluster among kids who play soccer on artificial turf. … Most of the time, though, quick conclusions about disease clusters and their causes don’t hold up to careful scrutiny.”

The voices of reason are coming from all corners. Just last week, Dr. Archie Bleyer, an expert in pediatric oncology with more than 300 peer-reviewed studies to his name and who spent 10 years as chair of the Children’s Cancer Group, wrote a commentary in the peer-reviewed journal Sports Medicine. Citing more than 41 sources, the piece states that science does not support the hypothesis that recycled rubber is unsafe, and, in fact, it promotes healthier lifestyles by providing more playing surfaces for kids, which in turn contributes to lessening the likelihood of cancer. What’s more, Dr. Michel D’Hooghe, chairman of the International Federation of Football Associations (FIFA) Medical Committee, wrote the following in a public letter to FIFA members: “A large number of studies have further confirmed that the effect of SBR rubber are as negligible as the effect of ingesting grilled foods or exposure to tire wear on roads in everyday life.”

Additionally, comparable overseas agencies have in recent months confirmed the findings of past studies. RIVM — essentially the Dutch equivalent of the EPA — published the results of its own risk assessment, concluding about recycled rubber, “…because the substances are more or less ‘enclosed’ in the granulate … the effect of these substances on human health is virtually negligible.”

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) found much the same after examining exposure through these fields to metals, PAHs and volatiles through skin contact, inhalation and ingestion, concluding that there exists a very low level of concern associated with recycled rubber, and saw no reason to advise against playing on such fields.

Most recently, the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation commissioned a field safety study on recycled rubber to determine if there were any hazards faced by young baseball players. Tests were then conducted on recycled rubber fields in five U.S. cities, finding that cancer risks were “at or below one in a million.” The Ripken Foundation also found that a number of oft-cited elements within recycled rubber were below Consumer Product Safety Commission limits for children’s products.

Simply put, the jury is no longer out on recycled rubber. There is a plethora of reputable science readily available on the topic, and evidence continues to pile up with strikingly consistent findings. As the multi-agency study drags on, turf industry jobs continue to be lost. Parents continue to worry for no reason.  Bureaucracy continues to beat out common sense.

At a certain point, enough is enough — the science is settled — and it is our hope that the multi-agency study can reach a meaningful conclusion in short order, letting all interested parties put unsubstantiated alarmist claims behind us once and for all.-By Art Dodge, Rom Reddy, & Darren Gill


Art Dodge is CEO of Ecore International. Darren Gill is vice president of marketing, innovation and customer service at FieldTurf and a member of the Safe Fields Alliance. Rom Reddy is managing partner and CEO of Sprinturf and a member of the Safe Fields Alliance.