As I do on an almost daily basis I scan the news for interesting stories that relate in some way to sport safety. A story that caught my attention as we were all preparing for the holidays was research published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discussing the safety of the recycled rubber used as part of the infill on many athletic fields, putting greens, parks and other outdoor spaces. These artificial fields are often referred to as “Field Turf”. Field Turf ® is actually the name of a leading company that designs and constructs many of the artificial fields that use plastic grass (fiber), sand and recycled rubber tires to construct many of the natural grass-like fields utilized on a daily basis. According to information on its website it has installed over 7,000 fields (15,000 total projects) and considers itself, “the safest, longest lasting, and highest performing artificial turf system available.” These artificial turf systems came to be after the concerns that initial attempts at artificial surfaces (think 1966 Astrodome) were actually increasing the number of injuries (especially knee) to the athletes that played on them. While it appears that these new systems have decreased orthopedic injuries to some degree there are still questions regarding the safety of the small rubber pellets (aka crumb rubber) used in the system generated from recycled tires. The EPA addresses previous study results these rubber pellets.
UNDERSTANDING FIELD TURF CONSTRUCTION:
According to FieldTurf® a solid system includes fiber, infill and backing. A video on their website can help you understand how these components work together to create a more realistic artificial surface. The fiber is the component of the field that looks like grass, but is intended to be more durable and reduce skin friction common with artificial surfaces. The backing is what allows the fibers to be connected in rows and helps the surface maintain its integrity. The infill, the area of focus of the EPA study, is most often a combination of sand and rubber pellets that is worked into the spaces between the fibers. The ratio of sand to rubber is adjusted depending on the desired field performance characteristics.
FieldTurf® states that their patented infill system is what makes the difference in safety (injury reduction), durability, drainage and performance as compared to other artificial field systems. It is not the within the scope of this post to discuss the drainage, durability and orthopedic safety of these systems. According to FieldTurf® there are two parts to the infill: silica sand and cryogenic rubber. These two components are layered in specific way (see website) to create appropriate performance characteristics. The top most layer of field turf is large cryogenic rubber pellets. These rubber pellets are created from recycled tires that are cryogenically frozen and turned into granules. They account for 30% of the total weight of the infill, approximately 216,000 pounds of rubber for a typical field.
The EPA was recently in the news around the topic of crumb rubber (the rubber used as part of infill on most synthetic fields) because it was asked to retract comments it made regarding the safety of crumb rubber based on 2009 research study. Citing results from the 2009 study, the EPA assured consumers that crumb rubber was safe despite finding trace levels of lead and other chemical compounds in the crumb rubber. As of December 2013 the EPA has now updated its website and crumb rubber fact sheet to more accurately reflect that it is unsure of the effects of the chemicals in crumb rubber on children. The EPA has also made clear that more research is needed. Review of the updated information includes an extensive list of compounds in crumb rubber that includes acetone, arsenic, benzene, nickel, latex, and lead among others. I encourage you all to read these updated statements to better understand what crumb rubber is. As a precaution the EPA states, “Both the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that young children wash their hands frequently playing outside and before they eat. The EPA also recommends these practices.”
There are many other resources out there that come down on both sides of the debate regarding crumb rubber. FieldTurf® has compiled this report that says it includes independent research to support the safety of crumb rubber. The New York State Department of Health has a fact sheet (as do many other states). Other sources for you to review in order to get a fuller picture of the debate include:
In the end, as with any safety issue that affects our children each parent must make a choice they are comfortable with. Field installation companies continue to tout the safety of these fields and the studies on crumb rubber continue in efforts to have more conclusive results in one direction or another. Finally, there are towns that have taken matters into their own hands and fought to have fields and playground components that include crumb rubber removed. It’s not my place to tell you where to come down on this issue, but as always to help you educate yourself on the issue and let you decide.