How safe is the synthetic turf your child is playing on?

Posted at 12:08 AM, Jul 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-23 00:08:11-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Synthetic turf can now be found at schools and sports parks across Virginia and the country.

Supporters insist the fields are safe, cost effective, and environmentally friendly, but others point to dangerous side effects.

According to the Synthetic Turf Council, as of 2012 there were over 8,000 synthetic turf sport fields in North American schools alone.

You can see them in Richmond at places like Robins Stadium, St. Christopher's school, and the River City Sportsplex.

Former Richmond Kickers goalie Ronnie Pascale has spent the better part of the last decade working in the synthetic turf industry.

"It plays more like natural grass, it feels more like natural grass, there's a way to make it as safe as natural grass. People are understanding that and you can use it a whole lot more,” Pascale said.


Synthetic turf

But some are also noticing a potentially lethal side effect.

Mount Sinai pediatrician Philip Landrigan is among the doctors now publicly voicing concern.

“Crumb rubber fields and synthetic turf fields have several health hazards,” said Dr. Landrigan.

Back in 2009, concern is what led a soccer coach at the University of Washington to begin compiling a list of athletes who had cancer, and they all had one thing in common: They played on synthetic turf for most if not all of their careers.

That list now contains nearly 200 names.

Reports such as those were enough to get the attention of Delegate Marcus Simon of Falls Church. He has sponsored a bill to halt the installation of synthetic fields at public schools and parks in Virginia.

"It's a constituent request, but the constituent is my wife," Simon said.

Delegate Marcus Simon

Delegate Marcus Simon

Simon's own 10-year-old son frequently plays on synthetic turf fields in northern Virginia.

At first, his bill received almost no support, but more and more people began sharing his concern.

"The publicity from putting the bill in has raised the profile of the issue,” he said. “People realize there is a state effort going on. A lot of people think this is a problem for the EPA or the CDC, that it's a federal issue."

In fact, three federal agencies are now looking to see if there's a connection between synthetic fields and cancer.

The focus lies on the crumb rubber, made from discarded tires.

The rubber is the surface on which the athletes actually play. Much like a natural field where they would play on the dirt and the grass is there to hold the dirt together.

When the artificial carpet is laid down, the first thing that goes on top of it is a layer of sand. Then, many layers of rubber are put on top and massaged in with giant brushes.

It gives the turf not only padding, but traction for the athletes feet. The problem comes when millions of the loose rubber pellets can become dislodged over the course of any athletic event.

Layers of rubber pellets

Layers of rubber pellets

"Crumb rubber does have toxins in it, but those toxins are encapsulated. The only way those toxins leech out of the crumb rubber is if the rubber changes state, so basically if it's burned or if it's melted and that never happens in synthetic turf," said Pascale.

Michael Peterson is a senior toxicologist for the gradient corporation, which specializes in studying environmental science.

"For many of the chemicals that are being discussed as a potential concern, for instance heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the level of those chemicals in recycled rubber are actually very similar to the levels that you find in natural soil," he explained.

He said while any discovery of cancer is tragic, the numbers associated with exposure to synthetic fields do not necessarily point to an epidemic.

"When you look at the background rates of cancer in young people in this country, and you look at the number of soccer players in this country, you would expect almost 21,000 cases of cancer in that population. The fact that we see 200 is not really unexpected," Peterson added.

Turf 2

Dr. Landrigan said parents should not forbid their kids from playing on these fields, but recommended something they should do.

“Be sure to have the child shower off very completely at the end of each time they play on the field," he said.

Meanwhile, Delegate Simon vowed to continue his quest for more information.

"I don't want to have a parent come to me in 10 years and say ‘why didn't you do more to stop this. All the signs were there. Why did you let this continue before you finally took action?’”

Both Pascale and Peterson welcome additional testing.

Delegate Simon's bill was defeated by just one vote this past General Assembly session. He plans on introducing it again when the GA reconvenes next January.