Embedded within the turf of some artificial grass fields in northeast Wisconsin, where athletes run, kick, and fall, you can find these tiny black specs called crumb rubber. It’s put there to fill in the field and help cushion players and prevent injury.
“If a kid gets tackled or in soccer a slide, this stuff does bump up and it is on their skins,” Nick Senger, Director for Ashwaubenon School District says.
But for many years’ crumb rubber, made from recycled tires, has been extremely controversial over concerns by some that it’s making kids sick. Like Teddy Shapiro who spent over a decade sliding around on fields like this.
“You know there are cuts and it got in cuts when I was diving,” Shapiro says.
A soccer goalie since he was eight, Shapiro wonders if those fields caused his cancer.
“It’s a rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma. I couldn’t really move after the surgery and the pain was, it was intense.”
“My gut feeling is it shouldn’t be around.”
So says Amy Griffin, a soccer coach in Washington State who received national attention in 2014, after compiling a list of athletes who played on artificial turf fields who were later diagnosed with cancer.
“I kept bumping into more and more people and I thought this is strange,” Griffin says.
She tells Local Five the list keeps growing.
“The list started with eight or nine and now it’s up to 220.”
But according to local school district officials, like Nick Senger, these athletic fields are safe and there is no hard evidence proving otherwise.
“There has been over 60 studies on synthetic fields and there has not been any correlation with health risks,” Senger says.
“If I thought for a second there was any danger I would make a change,” Kimberly’s School District Superintendent, Bob Mayfield, says.
Locally, both Kimberly and Ashwaubenon high schools use crumb rubber as infill on their artificial turf fields.
Mayfield, says he’s not had a single parent express concern to him in the 8 years since the field was installed, and calls Griffin’s list anecdotal evidence.
“At this point I wouldn’t have my children on there if I didn’t think it was safe,” he says.
Ashwaubenon’s field was installed in 2013. Athletic director Nick Senger says he believes crumb rubber is safe.
“There is no evidence right now that suggests a side effect or correlation for any health risks.”
And on it’s website, the Synthetic Turf Council, which represents the industry, says “crumb rubber has been critically examined and studied since the late 1980’s. Science has proven it to be safe for children and people of all ages.”
Yet although there is no conclusive proof that links crumb rubber exposure to cancer in athletes, new circumstantial evidence has prompted federal officials to take a new look at the urging of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D) Connecticut.
“Do you want your child ingesting or swallowing material from the scrap tires you’ve driven on for thousands of miles?” Senator Blumenthal asks.
A study by Yale University last year found crumb rubber pieces contains 96 different chemicals, and 20 percent of the toxic chemicals present were carcinogens.
“This crumb rubber has dangerous, potentially dangerous chemicals, carcinogens that can cause deadly diseases,” Blumenthal says.
Amy Griffin agrees, “It’s not just lead, not just benzene, not just chromium, it’s all of those mixed together in a cocktail of something that could be more volatile.”
In February the EPA, CDC and the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a new study to settle the question once and for all over whether crumb rubber poses possible health risks to young athletes.
A move critics and supporters of these widely-used turf fields welcome.
“If the federal government comes out and says this product is bad, unsafe, we would abide by that immediately,” Mayfield says
“We would take a look at the next best product to make sure our field is safe for our kids,” Senger adds.
“I certainly hope this doesn’t get swept under the carper with the chaos of an election year,” Amy Griffin says, “in my gut you can’t take a product deemed toxic and make it good.”
And in a statement to Local 5 the Synthetic Turf Council said “we hope the federal government’s involvement, which we have been encouraging for years, will settle this matter once and for all.”
A summary of the report should be released by the end of the year.
For more information from the EPA on the subject, click here.
For a list of reports compiled by the EPA on the subject, click here.
For more information from the Synthetic Turf Council, click here.