Are synthetic turf playing fields exposing children to unsafe levels of harmful chemicals putting them at risk of illness and disease?  That is a question that has percolated over the last several years, and one that received high-profile media attention in 2014.  The issue centers around the possible connection between crumb rubber infill – little black pellets of ground up rubber – and potential exposure to chemicals and heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and arsenic.  The rubber provides for a softer surface, but some are questioning whether the chemicals in the crumb rubber cause unsafe exposures to chemicals.

In late 2014 NBC News reported on concerns being raised about the potential health effects of children playing on crumb rubber infilled artificial turf. Other news outlets also published pieces on the subject on in 2014 as well (see here and here).

Opponents of the synthetic turf point to a 2007 report from Environment and Human Health, Inc., concluding that crumb rubber made from recycled tires creates a chemical exposure for people and the environment through chemical compounds released into the air and ground water.  The report further concludes that “recycled rubber crumbs are not inert, nor is a high-temperature or severe solvent extraction needed to release metals, volatile organic compounds, or semi-volatile organic compounds.” According the study’s authors, health concerns include acute and chronic irritation of the lungs, skin, and eyes. Furthermore, “knowledge is somewhat limited about the effects of semi-volatile chemicals on the kidney, endocrine system, nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune system, developmental effects and the potential to induce cancers.” For more from Environmental and Human Health, Inc. on the issue of crumb rubber infill and health, click here.

According to the Synthetic Turf Council, however, more than 75 independent and credible studies have validated the safety of synthetic turf.  The Synthetic Turf Council has collected numerous studies from a diverse group of researchers including from state federal regulatory agencies (e.g. US Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, and California Environmental Protection Agency) and published summaries and provides links to the research on its webpage.  Government and agency position statements can be found here.

[M]ore than 75 independent and credible studies have validated the safety of synthetic turf. 

A November 2014 toxicological analysis conducted on performance infill from Lower Canada College in Montreal scrutinized the infill and compared it to the European Union’s EN 71-3 standard.  EN 71-3 specifies safety requirements for toys and compliance is required for all toys sold in the European Union.  The standard sets limits for migration of various elements and is intended to minimize children’s exposure to potentially harmful material. The analysis found that the crumb rubber infill complied with EN 71-3 for each of the 18 different elements tested.

The implications of this debate are profound, but while the debate continues, so do the games on the synthetic turf.