With the RFU reportedly committing £50m to one hundred 3G floodlit pitches for the grassroots game over the next four-years, and the FA similarly beginning the installation of thirty of Greg Dyke's 3G hubs, Peter Britton questions the morality of these advancements given that scientific studies in the USA are pointing towards respiratory and carcinogenic effects of the rubber crumb infill.
He also asks why Government is not investigating further given the health risks to children and young adults
When manufacturers and builders began using asbestos in the late 19th century because of its sound absorption properties, average tensile strength and resistance to fire, it was concluded that a naturally occurring wonder product had been 'unearthed'. Its fibrous natural state meant that, once mined, it could be woven, sculpted and formed, and was used widely throughout much of the 20th century for a staggering array of purposes, including:
- fire retardant coatings
- concrete, bricks and pipes
- fireplace cement and joint compound
- heat, fire, and acid resistant gaskets
- pipe insulation
- ceiling insulation
- fireproofing dry walls, flooring and roofing
- brake pads and shoes
- garden furniture
- safety clothing
- kitchen accoutrements
However, for much of that century, there had been rumblings, and indeed considerable evidence, that asbestos was both carcinogenic (cancer causing) and precipitated irreversible respiratory problems. Yet, it was not until the 1980s that its use was first restricted and then, in the 1990s, banned altogether.
Its continuing long-term use after harmful health effects were known or suspected, and the fact that asbestos-related diseases can emerge decades later, resulted in litigation that has become the longest, most expensive mass civil lawsuit in American history. Asbestos-related liability remains an ongoing concern for many manufacturers, insurers and reinsurers.
The United States Government, and the asbestos industry in general, were criticised for not acting quickly enough to inform the public of dangers and to reduce public exposure.
In the late 1970s, court documents proved that asbestos industry officials had known of the dangers since the 1930s, but had concealed them from the public!
In 2011, it was reported that over 50% of UK houses still contained asbestos, despite a ban on asbestos products in November 1999; and that was five year's ahead of the EU schedule.
Now there appears to be a new threat to public health that is being similarly 'stonewalled'; and it is being used widely in the turfcare, leisure and landscaping industries. I am referring to rubber crumb, a bi-product of vehicle tyres that is used extensively in modern synthetic surfaces as an infill, as soft fall in playgrounds and for various landscaping projects.
When Messrs Elbert, Wright and Faria patented AstroTurf in 1965, the way was 'paved' for artificial turf to gain a significant place in sport. It was seen as a clear alternative to natural turf, with less maintenance being an attractive option, along with a consistent playing surface.
Scroll forward fifty years and many variants of synthetic turf are available - the product has certainly taken hold in the marketplace. So much so that the RFU and the FA are planning to install the latest technology across England in a series of training facilities and '3G hubs'. There are even domestic variants available for lawns and gardens.
The manufacturers and installers claim that the product offers:
- lower maintenance costs
- a more consistent playing surface
- less risk of serious injury
- increased revenue
The arguments against include:
- of no benefit to the environment
- heat stress for players
- increased risk of serious injury
- carpet type friction burns
- respiratory problems from the infill
- carcinogenic properties of the infill
It is the last two points that I want to concentrate on, and the similarities between rubber crumb and asbestos are quite frightening.
Like asbestos, rubber is a naturally occurring product which, in its normal state, poses no threat to human health. When extracted and moulded, it can provide a number of useful products, not least car tyres.
It has long been known that tyre production factories have reported a "higher than normal" rate of respiratory problems and cancers amongst their workers. As with asbestos, increased ventilation and extraction was seen as the obvious antidote.
Municipalities and local authorities across the world have long struggled to dispose of old tyres in an environmentally friendly manner, so it must have come as some relief to them when the rubber crumb bi-product was created.
Over forty of the US states, and the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) here in the UK, have banned the disposal of tyres into landfill because, in part, of their toxicity. But, as one observer noted; "a crumbled tyre is still a tyre and remains toxic, regardless of where you put it."
"A crumbled tyre is still a tyre and remains toxic, regardless of where you put it"
So, is there any research being undertaken into the health risks posed by rubber crumb or, as our American cousins like to call it, crumb rubber?
Well, yes, plenty. Most of it in the USA who were, incidentally, the first country to eventually ban the use of asbestos.
A report by Environmental and Human Health Inc (EHH) cited studies at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment, which identified the following chemicals in rubber crumb:
- Benzothiazole - a skin and eye irritation that is harmful if swallowed
- Butylated hydroxyanisole - a recognised carcinogen, suspected endocrine toxicant, gastrointestinal toxicant, immunotoxicant, neurotoxicant, skin and sense-organ toxicant
- n-hexadecane: a severe irritant
- (t-octyl) phenol: corrosive and destructive to mucous membranes
The study also detected metals that were leached from the tyre crumbs. Zinc was the predominant metal, but selenium, lead and cadmium were also identified. Some of the compounds identified are either known or suspected carcinogens.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer's study of the rubber industry found strong and sufficient evidence for cancer in humans in a series of epidemiology studies of rubber fabrication facilities throughout the world. Cancer was also found in some other locations, but the data on exposures were insufficient to attribute a specific work task or exposure to the cancer.
The EHH concluded that the toxic actions of concern from the materials being released from recycled rubber crumb include:
- severe irritation of the respiratory system
- severe irritation of the eyes, skin and mucous membranes
- systemic effects on the liver and kidneys
- neurotoxic responses
- allergic reactions
- developmental effects
Those findings alone should be enough to raise concerns, but apparently not. So here's a few more.
The Center for Environmental Health (CEH - again in the USA) noted the following:
"Rubber crumb contains a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including benzothiazole, carbon black and heavy metals." As the Mt. Sinai Children's Environmental Health Center has written: "Exposures to chemicals present in crumb rubber at very high levels are known to cause birth defects, neurologic and developmental deficits, and some can even cause cancer."
"Children are particularly vulnerable to toxic threats. Children have increased exposure to toxic chemicals due to the unique way they interact with their environment. Because they are growing and developing, their bodies are also more susceptible than adults to chemical exposures"
"Children are particularly vulnerable to toxic threats. Children have increased exposure to toxic chemicals due to the unique way they interact with their environment. Because they are growing and developing, their bodies are also more susceptible than adults to chemical exposures."
"Crumb rubber contains benzothiazole, which exerts acute toxicity and is a respiratory irritant and a dermal sensitiser. Carbon black, which makes up 20-40% of crumb rubber, has been identified as a cancer-causing chemical by California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Another concern is allergic reactions to the latex in crumb rubber."
"Unfortunately, children's exposure to these chemicals whilst using artificial turf fields has not been adequately studied. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its most recent evaluation of its study of rubber crumb, determined that it was not possible for the agency to reach comprehensive conclusions without the consideration of additional data."
"Unfortunately, children's exposure to these chemicals whilst using artificial turf fields has not been adequately studied. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its most recent evaluation of its study of rubber crumb, determined that it was not possible for the agency to reach comprehensive conclusions without the consideration of additional data"
The CEH state, quite categorically, that the health of children is important enough to take action now.
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery bases its tyre management strategy upon supporting the production and use of recycled tyre products whilst "providing a strong and fair regulatory framework to protect public health and safety and the environment."
Whilst the CEH agree with and support this mission, the use of recycled tyres in children's playgrounds and playing fields runs contrary to this goal.
The CEH now recommends that schools, when feasible, replace rubber crumb infill with infill made from natural materials. Their recommendation is similar to those in New York City, which currently uses alternatives to rubber crumb infill in its new turf installations, and the Los Angeles Unified School District, which removed rubber crumb from play areas for young children.
If the resources to replace infill are not available, say the CEH, there are a number of ways to reduce exposures. Turf fields should not be used on extremely hot days and students should be monitored for heat-induced illness and abrasions. All rubber crumb pellets should be removed from students' clothing, bodies and equipment after playing. Students should always wash their hands thoroughly after exposure to the rubber crumb and never lie down or eat on the field.
Ringing alarm bells yet?
Well, clearly not in the UK where there is little or no current research being undertaken into the health hazards posed by rubber crumb. In fact, the HSE state quite clearly on their website that; "historically, there used to be an excess of bladder cancer in rubber industry workers. This was associated with the antioxidant beta-naphthylamine, which was banned in the 1950s. There have also been links from rubber dust and fumes to stomach and lung cancers in the past. However, more recent studies have shown that increased risks to cancers are no longer present in the rubber industry."
They also state: "chopping and grinding of tyres produces a low density, porous material through which air may percolate. The total surface area of tyre chips or crumb particles may also be large compared with the volume occupied. The combination of permeability to air-flow and a high exposed surface area means that that a combustible material, such as rubber, is potentially susceptible to spontaneous combustion"; further stating "spontaneous ignition of large stockpiles of tyre shred or deep landfill deposits has occurred on numerous occasions. Finely shredded tyres are more susceptible because of the increased surface area available for reaction".
What? Are they seriously allowing this product to be utilised in the UK unchallenged? Surely there is now enough scientific evidence to suggest otherwise. This is not the conjecture of the climate change brigade that use words such as 'might cause' or 'could happen', but proven facts.
But, if it's conjecture you want - or further evidence, take your pick - then consider the following:
In 2014, Amy Griffin, head soccer coach for the University of Washington, began to question whether it was the chemicals in the rubber crumb in synthetic turf that were making goalies that she had coached, as well as goalies internationally, develop cancer.
"Goalkeepers are in constant contact with the turf and the rubber crumb gets into their cuts and scrapes, as well as their mouths. "I've coached for twenty-seven years; My first fifteen years, I never heard anything about cancer. All of a sudden it seems to be in a stream of kids"
"Goalkeepers are in constant contact with the turf and the rubber crumb gets into their cuts and scrapes, as well as their mouths. "I've coached for twenty-seven years," states Ms Griffin. "My first fifteen years, I never heard anything about cancer. All of a sudden it seems to be in a stream of kids." She has since compiled a list of thirty-eight American soccer players - thirty-four of whom are goalies - who have been diagnosed with cancer. Blood cancers, such as lymphoma and leukemia, dominate the list.
Dr Davis Lee of the Synthetic Turf Council responded to these observations; "We've got fourteen studies on our website that say we can find no negative health effects. Although they aren't 'absolutely conclusive,' there's certainly a preponderance of evidence, to this point, that says, in fact, it is safe."
But Nancy Alderman, president of the non-profit public health group Environmental and Human Health, has huge reservations. She says of the predominance of blood cancer; "Whenever you see a preponderance of one kind of cancer, that's when you worry. Goalies are 'in the stuff' all the time, so they are actually more exposed than the other players." Now consider rugby players, who spend much of their time on or close to the ground from tackles and scrummages.
"Whenever you see a preponderance of one kind of cancer, that's when you worry. Goalies are 'in the stuff' all the time, so they are actually more exposed than the other players"
When speaking of the matter, Connecticut state toxicologist David Brown said to Alderman, "Oh my god, we really have to look into this - I know what's in tyres."
But there appears to be a 'white knight' on the horizon, at least in the States, in the shape of US Women's soccer star Abby Wambach who has, since her retirement in 2015, turned her attention to rubber crumb.
During her international career, she scored 184 goals; more than any other player in history; female or male. In later years, she played many a game on synthetic pitches and was vehemently opposed to the surface choice at the Women's World Cup staged in Canada in 2015.
News about her retirement from the women's game spread rapidly on social media, which she announced right after President Obama had welcomed the team to the White House, congratulating them on their World Cup win.
In the middle of it all, she broached the topic of rubber crumb, tweeting to her 583,000 followers; "am glad this is now going to be an issue we can't turn our backs on anymore. What's in those little rubber pellets? I don't want my kids to suffer because they are guinea pigs for some big turf companies."
"I am glad this is now going to be an issue we can't turn our backs on anymore. What's in those little rubber pellets? I don't want my kids to suffer because they are guinea pigs for some big turf companies"
She was referring to the House Energy Committee asking the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to comment on the safety of crumb rubber fields by early November, a deadline they failed to meet.
When the report was finally presented it stated; "current information from a number of tyre crumb studies does not show an elevated health risk from playing on fields with synthetic turf or tyre crumbs. However, these studies do not comprehensively address new questions and concerns about children's health risks from exposure to crumb rubber". That's more fudge than the counties of Devon and Cornwall produce in a year. Just get on with it; this is serious stuff!
"Current information from a number of tyre crumb studies does not show an elevated health risk from playing on fields with synthetic turf or tyre crumbs. However, these studies do not comprehensively address new questions and concerns about children's health risks from exposure to crumb rubber"
There are many turfcare professionals who are opposed to the onrush of synthetic turf for professional sport, not least our own managing director, Dave Saltman, and industry stalwart Richard Campey. Their arguments, in the main, are centred around "natural turf is best" and that is certainly true when it comes to the environment and playability. Both have provided strong cases why natural turf should be the preferred surface for the majority of sports - perhaps hockey and tennis being exceptions - and both have stated that synthetic turf has its place in the industry, but the concerns now being raised about the use of the infill need serious investigation - now!
I believe it is time that pressure was put on the UK Government to investigate and regulate accordingly. I would suggest that, whilst scientific research is ongoing, the use of rubber crumb as both an infill and on playgrounds should be suspended. I would further suggest that the FA and the RFU consider the possible health implications before installing these surfaces, as a matter of conscience, or do the perceived financial gains outweigh the concerns?
Much of the scientific groundwork has been done in the USA, so surely a conclusion could be reached fairly quickly - and before it might be too late, as it was for so many who came into contact with asbestos whilst the authorities buried their heads in the sand; or should that be the rubber crumb?
Environmental and Human Health Inc - http://www.ehhi.org/reports/turf/health_effects.shtml