Questioning the Safety of Synthetic Turf

Necn's Ally Donnelly investigated the potential health risks of synthetic turf found on athletic fields.

No one knows what 17-year-old Chelsea Cohen would have been. The Stratford, Connecticut, teenager died after a hard fought battle with a rare type of cancer in her nervous system. Seven years later, her best friend Talia Babel was diagnosed with Stage Two thyroid cancer. Enduring surgey and radiation, Babel went to a dark place, “It was just, why me? Why now?”

Babel, Chelsea and another teammate, three girls on an elite travel soccer team diagnosed with cancer. Babel -- the team's goalie -- could not help but think of Chelsea's mom's fear that the synthetic turf they played on for years could have been a factor.

“It was in my socks. It was in my shorts. I would go home and take clothes off and there was crumb rubber everywhere,” Babel said. “It was in my bag, In your hair. You ate it sometimes.”

It is crumb rubber. Recycled tires, crushed up and used in bits to cushion athletic fields and anchor synthetic grass. Supporters say it's a safe and cheaper alternative to natural grass. It doesn't need to be water, sprayed with pesticides and it's always ready to play on. Opponents worry what the chemicals in the recycled tires might be doing to athletes' bodies.

Said, Brandeis legal studies professor and crumb-rubber field opponent Guive Mirfendereski, “You're making the risk go from zero to something. As long we don't know what kind of detrimental effect it has on human health, the precautionary principle will tells you -- stop.”

Though no research has linked cancer to artificial turf, the EPA says crumb rubber samples have contained known carcinogens like arsenic, benzene, cadmium, nickel and other harmful substances like lead.

Said Kirk Souza, Medway girls soccer coach, “They're inhaling, ingesting, touching carcinogens.”

According to data collected by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Medway is one of 300 fields using the crumb rubber infill in Massachusetts. But as more parks departments and school districts ban use of crumb rubber across the country, several Bay State communities are reconsidering the synthetic fields.

“The kids can't speak for themselves,” Souza said. “It's up to us as parents and the community to speak on behalf of the children.”

In Medway parents are lobbying the school committee to post warning signs on the fields alerting athletes to potential heath risks. In Concord nearly 800 people showed up to a March town meeting to debate a moratorium on artificial turf. It failed, but the attention left crumb rubber opponents so invigorated they are pushing for a statewide referendum. Winchester, Pittsfield, Marshfield, Marlboro, North Attleboro, Somerville, Quincy -- all debating the safety of crumb rubber fields.

Said Medway Selectman Glenn Trindade, “Look at all these kids out on the field. Most parents not only are not concerned, they're happy the fields are online.”

Trindade who also coaches sports in Medway dismisses cancer concerns. “Having a list of kids that got sick -- that's not science,” he said. “There's no study”

The bulk of the studies to date show little health risk from the fields, but the federal government now says testing may not have been expansive enough.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission now admits the agency's 2008 study fell short. A spokesman tells necn the current chairman has deep concerns over the agency's earlier endorsement "What was done in 2008 was not good enough to make a claim either way as to the safety of those fields."

The EPA recommends more testing. And the Centers for Disease Control calls the risk for harmful lead exposure low from *new* fields, but says "As the turf ages and weathers, lead is released in dust that could then be ingested or inhaled, and the risk for harmful exposure increases."

Said Wendy Heiger-Bernays, “The concentrations are low.” She’s a professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health. She insists she would let her children play on crumb rubber fields, but she said, “I think we still have due diligence to do.”

But don't expect that due diligence to come from the state. When officials in Needham and Medway asked the Department of Public Health to weigh in, the director of Environmental Health issued an 8-page letter detailing several cancer studies declaring the fields safe. She said the state does not have the resources to test individual fields, but did recommend towns urge athletes to wash their hands after playing on crumb-rubber fields -- particulary young players with frequent hand-to-mouth activity and to take their shoes off before entering the house to prevent tracking in crumb rubber.

Officials in Swampscott and Newburyport aren't taking the risk. Both North Shore communities are opting for more expensive sand infill to the tune of an *additional* two to 300-thousand dollars.

Said Lise Reid, Director of Newburyport’s Parks Department, “We decided it's worth it in terms of the environment. In terms of the health of our players and just giving everybody peace of mind.”

In the absence of state testing, Heiger-Bernays, the BU Public Health Professor has decided to take up the reigns herself. She and her team are launching a project to study fields across Massachusetts. If you’d like your community to get involved, email 

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