Because grass can be difficult to maintain, a lot of soccer fields are made from artificial turf composed of tiny black rubber pellets, known as crumb rubber. This is a common ground covering in parks and schools, where the cost and labor of upkeep of the real green stuff is prohibitive. Crumb rubber artificial turf is made from recycled tires, which are known to contain carcinogens, and now a devastating trend is emerging among young soccer goalies: they are being diagnosed with cancer at an increasing rate, and some are dying. The worst part is that the Environmental Protection Agency won’t even comment.
As has become almost expected in a story like this, the industry responsible for manufacturing and selling the artificial turf says dozens of studies have failed to link their product with cancer. Rather than accept what is likely a biased report, sick soccer players and their families are pushing the federal government for answers. Those efforts have been left largely unsatisfied, as the Environmental Protection Agency has flat-out refused to comment on the issue.
Yet, the number of mostly university-level soccer goalies coming down with various forms of cancer. University of Washington women’s soccer coach Amy Griffin has been compiling a list of athletes with cancer diagnoses in an attempt to track the trend. Most of the young women on her list are soccer goalies, the players who spend the most time in direct contact with the ground as they slide, stretch, and dive to deflect the ball. So far, that list has at least 63 names on it.
Critics of the rubber turf aren’t necessarily claiming that it is the cause of cancer in these athletes, but what they are doing is calling on government agencies to help determine whether the substance is safe for children and young adults to play on. The EPA’s complete refusal to address the question is suspect, and it leaves many parents and players with their hands in the air.
NBC independently reviewed the previous studies on a possible link between crumb rubber turf and cancer, and reported that no study shows a connection. However, it’s also true that no study has been conducted on long-term exposure and delayed effects. Since most of the athletes on Griffin’s list has been playing on crumb rubber turf since a young age (eight or 10 years old, in many cases) and then diagnosed with cancer ten or more years later, their cases wouldn’t have been on the radar of the existing studies. There have been some small victories, like in California, where a study has been commissioned to investigate the long-term effects of crumb rubber exposure. However, industry lobbyists are summarily defeating similar efforts in other states, such as Virginia and Michigan. Without a federal agency taking ownership of the question, it’s unlikely a major study will be conducted.
The California study will take at least three years to complete, so in the meantime, parents are left with a difficult decision when it comes to allowing their young children to play sports on a potentially hazardous surface.