Last week, we reported that Los Angeles is replacing upward of 100 grass soccer fields (an incredible number for one city, if you think about it) with artificial turf, in an effort to save water and give soccer players a surface that won't devolve into dirt every four months.
The new fields will not use the dreaded "crumb rubber," those tiny bits of recycled tire rubber that make the turf a bit more bouncy. That will come as a relief to the growing number of people who deem crumb rubber a health hazard — and a cancer risk.
But what does the prevailing science have to say about crumb rubber's carcinogenic effects?
In short: It's probably fine. But it needs to be studied a little more.
No one is saying that crumb rubber is dangerous to touch. The fear is that the chemicals in rubber tires, some of which are carcinogenic or otherwise hazardous, could somehow be ingested — that is, a player or child would swallow a bit of the stuff, and this material could, say, give them cancer or some other disorder.
But you'd have to eat a whole lot of crumb rubber to encounter this sort of risk.
"The quantity you’d have to ingest is impractical," says Anthony Dicicco, a director of business development at Astroturf. "You’d have far bigger issues" before you got to that situation.
Dicicco compares the crumb-rubber fear to anxiety over mercury in fish. "We know that if you lived on an all fish-diet, it would probably have a negative effect. But it’s a non-factor for someone who eats fish a couple times a week."
A bevy of reports have signed off on crumb rubber's safety. A 2008 study by the New York State Department of Health found that "ingestion, dermal or inhalation exposures to chemicals in or released from crumb rubber do not pose a significant public health concern." And studies by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) "did not find increased health risks for bacterial infections or exposure to volatile organic compounds" — i.e., dangerous chemicals, according to spokesman Sam Delson.
But anxiety about crumb rubber spiked after a 2014 NBC investigation found two young female soccer goalkeepers who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Now OEHHA has commissioned a new study, to be completed by June 2018.
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"People are saying, look at additional issues, and that’s what we’re attempting to do now," Delson says. "There are always data gaps, always additional things that you can examine."
But that's not why the new L.A. fields aren't using crumb rubber. Dicicco, who works for Astroturf and who just helped install three synthetic grass fields in Van Nuys, says that worry over crumb rubber causing cancer is unfounded — but it has other downsides.
"Crumb-rubber systems have a significantly higher rate of ACL (knee ligament) and ankle injuries" compared with grass fields, Dicicco says.
Los Angeles parks already have more than 30 artificial turf fields. Some are crumb rubber. And many schools — including Crossroads and Beverly Hills High School — have crumb rubber fields as well.