Playing sports should keep our kids healthy, not make them sick. Yet, as a University of Washington soccer coach has discovered, that might not be the case if kids are playing on synthetic turf fields covered in crumb rubber infill.

The coach is Amy Griffin and she’s keeping an informal list of student athletes from across the country who have or have had cancer. Her growing list has over 200 names on it, over half of the names are soccer players and of those, many are goalkeepers. While it’s an informal list, those are sobering numbers for any parent who has kids that play on crumb rubber fields.

I’m one of those parents. My two kids have played soccer almost since they could walk. When I hear those numbers, I think “Why soccer players? What if one of my kids becomes one of those cases? How do I keep that from happening?”

Reasons For Concern

Recently, coaches, players, parents, and educators have started to question whether synthetic turf fields and the copious amounts of “crumb rubber” infill sprayed on them are to blame for these cancers. That’s because the little black pellets are made from old tires, and these tires contain a toxic mix of chemicals that are linked to a variety of health effects, including cancer. A better name for crumb rubber is actually “toxic tires.”

In addition to the presence of cancer-causing chemicals, studies show that when these tire pellets heat up, they emit more harmful chemicals. The hotter it gets, the more chemicals are released for players to inhale.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, where the long rainy season makes using grass fields on a daily basis impractical, my kids have played on turf fields a significant amount. Every pass, tackle, and save kicks up tiny toxic tire pellets into the air. The pellets stick to clothing, cuts, and scrapes, are unintentionally swallowed or inhaled, and are tracked into our cars and homes. Given the toxic makeup of these tire pellets, this means my kids and their teammates are rolling in and tracking home material that contains chemicals found to cause cancer.

And it’s not just athletic fields. School districts are installing turf fields at schools too. It’s a growing business – and not enough is being done to consider the hazards of this toxic turf or the safer alternatives.

I can’t say I’m surprised to learn these facts about toxic tire infill. Call it parental intuition or whatever, but I, along with other soccer parents, have often wondered about our kids’ health playing on turf fields. I’ve stood waiting for soccer practice to end on hot days remarking with other parents on the strong chemical odors coming from the fields. I’ve been on the sidelines watching my kids play and had parents ask, “What is that black stuff? Is it tires? That can’t be good for them.”

How Do We Protect Kids?

Many are calling for more studies to determine if ground up tires are safe. But when I read the stories of soccer players with cancer, my biggest concern is that waiting for more information means more kids will be exposed to harmful chemicals, and more kids will be added to the list.

Some communities, like Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien WA, and South Kitsap High School in Port Orchard, WA, aren’t waiting for the studies. They’ve turned to alternatives, like ground up athletic shoes or organic fill.  Just this month, the City of Edmonds, WA banned the installation of crumb rubber for 18 months pending health review.

I’m not willing to wait for years for more studies either. Not when athletes are getting sick. The facts on the hazards of crumb rubber are definitive enough for me. 

Safer alternatives are available and using them might prevent my kids and their friends from getting sick.

Parents need to talk with coaches, soccer clubs, local parks departments, and schools about looking at different options to crumb rubber. All of us need to talk to policymakers about stopping the use of ground-up tires on play fields. Policymakers need to stop the use of hazardous chemicals on play fields that can cause cancer and other health problems and ensure that safer materials are used.

Many of us already question whether crumb rubber infill is good for our kids. It’s time to do something about it.

Ivy

Ivy Sager-Rosenthal is a soccer mom of two boys and a communications consultant. Previously, she was the Campaign Director for the Washington Toxics Coalition. On most weekends, rain or shine, she can be found on the sidelines of a Pacific Northwest soccer field.

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