Why Is Artificial Turf Under Attack?

Mar 12, 2015

Remember when you thought consensus had been reached on something — whether it be an agreement between colleagues or the result of significant research — only to find the consensus called into question weeks, months or years later?

As a professional journalist for 25 years, first at daily newspapers and then as an editor on the staff of a leading trade magazine covering the sports business industry, my career was built on searching for the truth and then sharing it with readers.

I was reminded, though, that consensus isn’t always enough after NBC News aired a five-minute-and-30-second report in October about artificial turf. Amy Griffin, associate head coach of the University of Washington women’s soccer team, linked cancer diagnoses (mostly lymphoma and leukemia) among 34 soccer goalies to the infill used in turf. Among the names on that list were two University of Washington goalkeepers.

That’s a huge claim, one that sparked new concerns among parents, put athletic directors on the defensive and refocused the spotlight on an industry that appeared to have overcome the worst of its safety-related challenges.

Synthetic turf has become the playing surface of choice for many high school, college and professional sports teams, and thousands of fields have been installed all over the country during the past 20 years. I was there from the beginning of this evolution, covering the widespread transition from natural grass to artificial turf and its special fibers that create a more grass-like feel and appearance, bolstered by crumb rubber infill that provides greater cushioning for players.

This new generation of turf was introduced to the public in the mid-1990s and quickly became the focus of intense scrutiny regarding potential health dangers posed by the infill, which is manufactured with recycled tires.

Independent study after independent study, however, rebuked claims of toxicity caused by infill. The Synthetic Turf Council issued a statement late last year in the wake of the NBC report, citing more than 60 technical studies and reports from the past two decades that review the health effects of crumb rubber as it pertains to toxicities from inhalation, ingestion and dermal contact, as well as cancer.

These studies have been conducted by scientists and researchers at such diverse entities as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, the University of California, Berkeley’s Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability, Wayne State University’s Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the State of Connecticut’s Department of Public Health.

“The preponderance of evidence shows no negative health effects associated with crumb rubber in synthetic turf,” according to a statement from the Synthetic Turf Council. “As NBC factually reported, ‘there is no research directly linking crumb rubber exposure to cancer.’ ”

That’s why Griffin’s claim is so frustrating to me — both as a parent who’s allowed his kids to play on artificial turf and as a sports business journalist who knows better than to blame the surface.

Even Greenpeace, an organization unafraid to make noise, doesn’t point fingers at the turf. Last May, Greenpeace Germany investigated 33 pieces of soccer equipment (including shoes and goalkeeper gloves) produced by some of the sport’s leading gear manufacturers. Results, as reported by the daily trade publication Environmental Leader, showed that the majority of shoes and half of the gloves contained significantly elevated levels of perfluorinated compounds — persistent pollutants that do not break down when released into the environment and have been found to be toxic in laboratory animals.

Maybe it’s time that shoes and gloves underwent the same type of rigorous examination that turf has endured.

I asked Dr. Blair Leftwich, corporate technical director for Trace Analysis, an environmental testing lab based in Lubbock, Texas, which conducts independent tests for turf manufacturers, what he thought of the NBC report.

“Infill’s reputation was doing fine until this happened,” he told me. “Infill is nontoxic, just like all the publications say. We didn’t find anything different. I don’t have any confidence at all that goalies have a higher cancer rate than anyone else.”

In fact, Leftwich (whose son is a soccer player) suggests that other position players in soccer are on the ground more than goalies and thus in greater contact with the infill. And if synthetic turf were contributing to the development of cancer, why haven’t we heard about a spike in diagnoses among running backs or defensive linemen?

Leftwich blames a combination of poor reporting and an overzealous coach for the controversy generated by NBC’s story, and he says he sent an email to the network citing his own studies. So far, Leftwich hasn’t received a reply.

Sometimes the pursuit of truth is blocked by the ease of convenience. Simply because crumb rubber infill was such an easy target for so long doesn’t mean turf should take the fall. Again.

This blog originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse and was reprinted with permission from the author, Michael Popke. Mr. Popke is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of experience in print/digital media as a newspaper reporter, B-to-B magazine/online newsletter editor, social media content generator, freelance writer, book editor & music critic. He is the owner of Two Lakes Media Group.

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