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Waiting for an Answer on the Safety of Synthetic Turf? The Wait Continues

25 Jan, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
EPA Notes that Studies Are Ongoing, Although Preliminary Findings Indicate No Cause for Concern

If you were waiting on a yes/no answer from the U.S. government concerning the safety of synthetic turf, you won’t get it, at least not immediately.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, collecting research about the safety of turf (or more specifically, about the crumb rubber used as infill in synthetic turf) is underway. A recent formal announcement about the study notes that more information will be coming later in 2017.

That means the obvious questions of the public – whether or not crumb rubber is safe – will have to wait.

The announcement notes a timeline:

On February 12, 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) launched a multi-agency Federal Research Action Plan on Recycled Tire Crumb Used on Playing Fields and Playgrounds to study key environmental and human health questions. This coordinated Federal Research Action Plan on Recycled Tire Crumb Used on Playing Fields and Playgrounds includes outreach to key stakeholders, such as athletes and parents, and seeks to: 

  • Fill important data and knowledge gaps.

  • Characterize constituents of recycled tire crumb.

  • Identify ways in which people may be exposed to tire crumb based on their activities on the fields.

On December 30, 2016, the agencies released a status report describing the progress of the research to date. The status report includes the final peer-reviewed Literature Review/Gaps Analysis report and describes the progress to date on other research activities that are part of the effort including:

  • Characterization of the chemicals found in tire crumb.

  • Characterization of the exposure scenarios for those who use turf fields containing tire crumb.

  • Study to better understand how children use playgrounds containing tire crumb.

  • Outreach to key stakeholders.

But when exactly all that research is supposed to be concluded, and when the findings will be released to the public, is an open question. Material (meaning crumb rubber from tire used in fields) has been collected from tire recycling plants and synthetic turf fields around the U.S. Tire crumb samples have been gathered from nine tire crumb recycling plants, 19 fields located on US Army installations and 21 community fields including both indoor and outdoor fields.  Some tests will be conducted during hotter times of the year, to see if temperature indicates off-gassing. The CPSC playground study also will continue in 2017.

While this effort won’t provide all the answers about whether synthetic turf fields are safe, it represents the first time that such a large study is being conducted across the U.S.

Already, three key organizations in the sports industry (the Synthetic Turf Council, Safe Fields Alliance and Recycled Rubber Council) have announced they will work together to promote the information that all rubber infill used in such facilities built by their members needs to meet new ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) toy standards for heavy metals.

However, EPA researchers have noted in their most recent report, preliminary findings indicate no cause for alarm:

“Other federal, state, and local government agencies have conducted limited studies on artificial turf fields. For example, from 2009-2011, New York City and the states of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey conducted studies on tire crumb infill and synthetic turf. Also, in 2008 and 2009 the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry evaluated synthetic turf “grass blades” in response to concerns about lead exposure. Their evaluations estimated that any potential releases of toxic chemicals from the grass blades, such as lead, would be below levels of concern.”

Most recently, the Washington (state) Department of Health released the results of its own study on the safety of synthetic turf. The study found no elevated health risks to athletes playing on synthetic turf, nor to spectators or officials at those games. In part, the report noted, "The available research suggests exposures from crumb rubber are very low and will not cause cancer among soccer players. The Washington State Department of Health recommends that people who enjoy soccer continue to play regardless of the type of field surface."

Despite initial predictions from alarmists, many school systems are now moving forward with construction of synthetic fields. An area in Buffalo, New York, was the latest city to announce its decision, according to an article in the Buffalo News.

Board President Jill Y. O'Malley said she felt the project had waited long enough to assuage the Williamsville School Board's concerns. And while a hard and faster was not available, she notes, the lack of a negative report was sufficient to serve as a go-ahead.

"I believe we can say that we did our due diligence," she said. "We really had hoped for more definitive results that did not come."

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