With the national newspapers picking up on the health and safety concerns over rubber crumb - albeit for just a couple of days - the industry was quick to respond with a plethora of statements, denials and, in some instances, gobbledygook.
In this update article, Pitchcare's Peter Britton reviews the current state of play and questions whether anyone is actually taking on board the concerns
It is sometimes very difficult to write this type of article with a sense of objectivity, such can be the sensationalism surrounding such topics but, when the national papers - both tabloids and broadsheets - picked up on the potential health hazards of rubber crumb back in mid-February, it prompted us to release our cover story early. For the record, it had been written in mid-January. It generated much comment across social media, email and various other outlets and was even highlighted on TV sports channels as a topic of concern.
As is often the way with the nationals, the furore has since abated, but the problem has not, and will not, go away. Indeed, a Twitter poll carried out by Pitchcare on the matter resulted in 21% having no concerns over the safety of rubber crumb, 22% who were concerned and 57% who said that more research was needed.
Let me state clearly, at this juncture, that this is not another 'natural turf is best' article, although I clearly believe that to be the case. No, it is purely about the potential health risks of rubber crumb - especially to children - and, therefore, its use as 'fall safety' in playgrounds and landscaped areas is of equal concern.
For the moment, I am not concerned about the claims of serious injury to players using 3G surfaces, eye infections, allergic reactions or, indeed, the numbers of replacement pitches being required after just a few years, making a mockery of, it would appear, the manufacturers' claims of longevity.
No, I am concerned about the scientific finding coming out of America regarding rubber crumb's carcinogenic properties and the problems it causes to the respiratory system. These findings have prompted over forty US States to ban further installations, whilst many have additionally recommended that existing surfaces with 'crumb rubber' infills be replaced.
Having reviewed the available information (documented in my previous article), I made the request that both the Football Association and the Rugby Football Union consider their stance on the installation of 3G surfaces - with rubber crumb infill - until such times as definitive research is undertaken here in the UK and/or the EU. The request was made as a matter of conscience, as these new sporting hubs will be used primarily by children and young adults; those most at risk if the claims are true.
That the US is way ahead of the UK on this matter is par for the course. What happens across the pond often takes ten years to come into force over here. And that, in this instance, is far too long, in my opinion.
In my original article, I likened the concerns over rubber crumb to those surrounding asbestos way back in the early part of the twentieth century. After years of denial by various governments and 'authorities', the product was eventually banned some sixty years later - too late for the countless folk who died slowly from cancer or respiratory problems. I do not wish to see the same mistakes made again.
So, how do we, as an industry, move this forward? How do we get Government to initiate proper research? How do we get the sports governing bodies, government agencies and other interested parties to act?
Well, the first port of call had to be those very organisations, so our editor, Kerry Haywood, contacted them for a statement. At the time of writing, only a handful had responded directly, some had put out a general release on the subject and others had made no comment at all.
HSE (Health & Safety Executive)
As their name implies, this is the government agency charged with all things 'health and safety'. They have already banned the disposal of tyres into landfill because, in part, of their toxicity.
Their response was succinct; "Thank you for contacting the Health and Safety Executive with your enquiry regarding rubber crumb surfaces.
The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are taking the lead for enquiries regarding rubber crumb surfaces made from re-cycled tyres."
Having passed the buck to the CRD over the mis-selling of PPPs, we wonder what they actually are responsible for?
The Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)
"Our broad remit means we play a major role in people's day-to-day life, from the food we eat, and the air we breathe, to the water we drink".
I am not sure how health concerns over rubber crumb fall within that 'broad remit' or, indeed, if DEFRA has the knowledge base required.
However, their Chief Communications Officer, Daniel Barnes, offered the following; "I am aware that Public Health England as well as the FA have put out statements on this issue - with PHE looking at the public health concerns. We cover the regulation and the measures in place to ensure companies meet strict legal safety requirements and clearly demonstrate the chemicals they produce can be used safely. Details of the REACH rules are available on the HSE website."
"Although current evidence does not show there is any safety risk, we will continue to monitor the issue."
Public Health England (PHE)
PHE is an executive agency, sponsored by the Department of Health. They protect and improve the nation's health and wellbeing, and reduce health inequalities.
Their Director of the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, Dr Jill Meara, provided us with the following; "PHE is not conducting specific research into this area, but we will continue to monitor the scientific literature, including the work being undertaken by US Government Agencies on crumb rubber, and consider peer-reviewed research as it emerges and then develop specific advice if a hazard is identified."
Sports and Play Construction Association (SAPCA)
"250 corporate members, all of whom have a direct involvement in the development of sports and play facilities - from contractors, manufacturers and suppliers to consultants, test laboratories, sports governing bodies and related organisations."
No response forthcoming.
Rugby Football Union (RFU)
The RFU were kind enough to provide the following statement; "The RFU adheres to the latest independent evidence which indicates that 3G pitches in the UK, which are built to industry-standard specifications, are safe. We are guided by World Rugby Regulation 22 in this area, which stipulates the strict testing and approval process that manufacturers and installers of 3G pitches must follow for them to be approved for use in rugby.
From time to time, concerns are raised in the media as to the safety or environmental risks associated with these pitches and their constituent parts, commonly crumb rubber.
3rd generation artificial turf is recognised as a durable, safe, year-round playing surface, able to withstand regular use and all kinds of weather. It enables significant increases in sports participation, ensuring far more individuals and communities benefit from all the associated social and health benefits of physical activity.
Safety remains a priority for the RFU and we will be continue to be guided by World Rugby on the relevant standards for AGPs, responding appropriately to new information and/or research.
World Rugby is in contact with the Synthetic Turf Council in the USA and other relevant bodies and is monitoring developments, adopting an evidence-based approach guided by experts. We will also continue to work closely with Sport England and other sports in monitoring this area."
The Synthetic Turf Council (STC)
Founded in 2003, the Synthetic Turf Council is a non-profit association dedicated to serving as a resource for trustworthy information about synthetic turf.
This American organisation states that it is "committed to community wellness and environmental responsibility through the use of synthetic turf, the Synthetic Turf Council is the industry's voice for promoting the highest ethical and professional standards, education, legislative and community advocacy."
In a position statement from 2015 on their website, they say: "Not one study out of the 51 we cite and make available on our website warns against a serious elevated human health or environmental risk from synthetic turf … not a single one. No one study will ever provide a definitive overview on every aspect of research that could be analyzed related to synthetic turf. That is the nature of scientific research; there can always be one more study and more opportunity for review."
The statement concludes with; "All of that research provides confidence that there is no elevated human health or environmental risk from the ingestion, inhalation, or dermal contact with synthetic turf."
Additionally, the STC website carries a statement from the Recycled Rubber Council; "The RRC has a mission to communicate, advocate and educate about the safety and beneficial uses of recycled rubber. The organization was created to serve as a resource for those that want unbiased information about recycled rubber and to be a voice for an industry ... an industry that provides products that are all around us and make our world a better place. Rubber has been an integral part of our lives for nearly 200 years and, without it, the world as we know it would be a dramatically different place."
The STC had not provided a direct response at the time of going to press.
The Football Association (FA)
The FA issued a general release stating; "The Football Association adheres to the latest independent evidence that indicates that 3G pitches in the UK, which are built to industry-standard specifications, are safe. From time-to-time, concerns are raised in the media as to the safety or environmental risks associated with these pitches and their constituent parts, commonly rubber crumb. The numerous scientific studies conducted by government agencies around the world, and undertaken by independent experts, have all validated the human health and environmental safety of 3G pitches and rubber crumb. Third generation artificial turf is recognised as a durable, safe, year-round playing surface, able to withstand regular use and all kinds of weather. It enables significant increases in sports participation, ensuring far more individuals and communities benefit from all of the associated social and health benefits of physical activity."
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
In recent months, this American agency has changed its stance on the issue of 'tire crumb', tempering its once pro viewpoint to now read; "Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb, but the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb."
Not exactly helpful, and certainly not definitive.
The Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG)
The IOG's Chief Executive, Geoff Webb, provided an insight into the association's take on the matter via a general statement. In a very balanced viewpoint, Geoff commented; "Is the issue of rubber crumb infill an inconvenient truth or just an inconvenience? Whatever your stance, the debate is set to continue. Surely, as an industry, we have a simple duty of care?"
"If, as the EPA statement says, research is limited, surely more research is required? Perhaps the Environment Agency or the British Medical Association, organisations with no links to the industry, should provide a second opinion?"
He continued; "The IOG believes this is an issue that must not be literally swept under the carpet, but we must take a balanced view. What we need with rubber crumb are safe standards that make any component part of any surface fit for use and safe for the end user."
I concur with Geoff Webb's summation. Sadly, however, there are too many interested parties who have invested huge amounts of money to get the product to where it is today. They have a vested financial interest that requires the wearing of rose coloured glasses when passing any comment on the subject of rubber crumb.
Should the outcome of any research require the removal of rubber crumb from the marketplace, not only would the manufacturers, installers and landscapers lose a product once thought to be safe, but governments, municipalities and local authorities around the world would be left with the huge and ongoing problem of how to dispose of used tyres. Remember that they are already deemed toxic by the HSE here in the UK and various US agencies.
Furthermore, a Scottish professor has released his findings on rubber crumb. Samples were sent for testing by the Environmental Scientifics Group in Burton on Trent, and the results were passed to Prof. Andrew Watterson, an environmental health expert from Stirling University.
He said: "This report confirms and reveals the presence of a number of carcinogens in the rubber crumb."
"If the chemicals and metals remain locked into the crumb, there will be no exposure. However, it seems to be fairly clear there may be some potential risk from some of these substances to sports people."
"To what extent and what effect carcinogenic compounds may be taken up through inhalation, skin absorption or ingestion, and under what conditions, remains the big question."
The Daily Mirror, who reported the findings in late March, commented that they had tried to contact SAPCA for a comment, to no avail. Additionally, they pointed out that "the safety labels on rubber crumb products warn workers laying pitches not to breathe the vapour and avoid skin contact."
In what may be considered to be a landmark decision, Surfleet Play and Recreation Committee (SPARC), the charity that owns the ten-acre Glen Park children's and leisure complex in the Lincolnshire village, had been planning to fund a new, all-weather pitch for use by football and hockey teams.
But, after committee members learned about a study by the University of Washington, which claimed there was a connection between rubber granules used to make 3G artificial pitches and about 200 cancer patients, the plans were "put on hold".
SPARC trustee, Doug Whyles, said: "The idea of a 3G pitch first arose about two or three years ago when we had Pinchbeck United's junior football team here and they were nominated as an anchor club by the Football Foundation."
"By the middle of last year, we'd acquired funding for the project and had expected to make a start on the new pitch later this year. But, as soon as the alleged cases of cancer related to these pitches emerged in the USA, we were persuaded that we couldn't go ahead with the project and it was put on hold."
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Well, the European Union (EU) recently announced that they are "considering health issue concerning rubber crumb".
They have stated that; "The rubber, used in the construction of 3G pitches has been linked to harmful chemicals called PAHs, which are known to be highly carcinogenic (cancer-causing), especially to children."
"The European Commission has put a restriction on the manufacturing, use and placing on the market of PAHs. Companies began to comply with the restriction on December 27th, 2015."
The most recent discussion about recycled rubber took place in November 2015 at an EU member-state competent authorities meeting.
The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which is the driving force behind regulatory chemical authorities in Europe, has begun to prepare a guideline to define which products or parts of products will fall under the scope of European restrictions.
Good news indeed, but surely it is now time for the UK Government and the British Medical Association to initiate thorough research into this potentially harmful by-product? And, whilst doing so, keep in mind the cloak and dagger methods employed to keep asbestos available when the dangers were known!
The bottom line here may well be that rubber crumb is perfectly safe but, please, let's find out once and for all, for the sake of our children and grandchildren.