The School Synthetic-Turf Wars
Towns are weighing the practicality of artificial fields against the potential health risks for the kids who play on them.
Updated on October 16, 2017.
Earlier this year, the Middle School Building Committee in North Haven, Connecticut, voted unanimously to install two new artificial-turf fields at a cost of more than $2 million. After a series of public meetings, some phone calls to experts, and a little debate, the committee had decided the easy maintenance of artificial turf outweighed the alleged but unproven health risks for students who play on it. Just in case, committee members opted for the less controversial encapsulated crumb-rubber infill over the traditional crumb rubber option.
“I felt confident that the material had been studied many times, in many different places, in many different ways and it was a safe material,” Gary Johns, the committee’s chair, told me last month.
But some parents in town weren’t convinced. Amanda Gabriele had heard of a supposed link between crumb rubber and cancer and became increasingly concerned the more she read about the infill material. Soon after the fields were approved, she—along with fellow parent Danielle Morfi and others—launched an organization called North Haven Against Shredded Tire Infill and demanded the town reconsider its decision to install a synthetic surface. Since then, Gabriele and Morfi say, NHASTI members have been told to move, sent nasty messages on social media, scorned at public meetings, and glared at in public. And they’ve gotten nowhere in stopping the artificial-turf fields. “Our concerns,” Gabriele said, “have fallen on not only deaf ears but also aggressive ears.”
More than 8,000 artificial-turf surfaces are currently in use across America, from youth sports fields to professional stadiums, according to the Synthetic Turf Council. The fields are durable, rain-resistant, and low-maintenance, and their sleek designs appeal to young athletes and their parents. But in recent years, some researchers have raised concerns about the safety of these surfaces and their infills, which are typically made from scrap tires, causing parents like Gabriele to agonize over the fields’ impact on kids’ health.
There is no scientific consensus on the risks of artificial turf. Some researchers are sure crumb rubber is poisoning the children who come in contact with it. Others suggest that concern is little more than media-driven hysteria. Still others believe it’s too early to say for sure. The federal government has commissioned a study to address the mystery, but results could be years away.
Though some advocates have suggested a moratorium on crumb-rubber fields until the science crystallizes, the surfaces keep sprouting up across the country. That means towns and school districts like North Haven are deciding whether to install artificial turf without knowing for certain if they risk poisoning their children by doing so.
Artificial turf first entered the national spotlight in 1966, when it was installed at the Astrodome, then the brand-new home of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros. Versions of that original AstroTurf surface soon spread throughout professional baseball, until about a third of the 30 MLB teams played on artificial surfaces. By the time natural grass returned to favor in baseball during the 1990s and 2000s due to pushback from players, synthetic turf had spread to football fields and soccer pitches—not only at the professional level but also in youth and college sports. The fields were expensive to install but could be cheaper to maintain than natural grass if managed properly. As children played more and more sports and fields were forced to withstand more and more wear, towns saw artificial turf as a sensible investment.
Researchers have examined numerous potential dangers of synthetic turf, from increased concussion risk to overheating in the summer to spikes in ACL tears and staph infections. But the concern that has garnered the most attention is the unproven but nevertheless alarming link between crumb-rubber infill—the granular used-tire material that serves as cushioning on synthetic turf—and cancer.
Crumb rubber emerged in the early 2000s as a softer, bouncier alternative to previous generations of artificial turf, while serving as a convenient way for the tire industry to dispose of waste material. Soon, it was a regular part of not only turf fields but also playgrounds across the country.
The idea of filling children’s fields and playgrounds with tire waste raised alarm among researchers almost immediately, but the crumb-rubber debate didn’t hit the mainstream until 2014, when NBC News reported on a suspicious cancer cluster in Washington state. A local college-soccer coach, Amy Griffin, had observed that numerous players, particularly goalkeepers, had come down with blood cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia after playing on surfaces with crumb-rubber infills. She theorized that the black bits of scrap tire the players were constantly diving into (not to mention inhaling or even swallowing) were causing them to get sick.
But this past January, the Washington State Department of Health published a study suggesting that the rate of cancer among Griffin’s players was comparable to that for Washington state as a whole. The study concluded that there was currently no evidence that crumb rubber contained enough carcinogenic chemicals to endanger those who play on it, while leaving the door open for future research to the contrary.
As the director of Penn State’s Center for Sports Surface Research, Andrew McNitt has reviewed and conducted extensive research on synthetic turf. He cautions that the surfaces can overheat on hot days and become dangerously hard if not properly maintained. But he simply hasn’t seen evidence to support claims about cancer. “There are problems with synthetic turf, but I have no problem with my kids, my grandkids playing on it,” he told me. “Crumb rubber is really not a concern to me.”
(McNitt’s center is underwritten by FieldTurf, an artificial turf company, but he says he has no contractual relationship with the firm, that he has been funded throughout his career by both synthetic- and natural-turf interests and that his loyalty is, above all, to the truth. The arrangement underscores how difficult it can be to tease out industry’s role in shaping the conversation about turf.)
But plenty of researchers and advocates disagree entirely with McNitt’s view of artificial turf. Nancy Alderman, the president of Environment and Human Health, Inc., a nonprofit environmental-health advocacy group, insists the crumb-rubber debate is far from settled. She refers to a letter written by the EHHI toxicologist David Brown and the Brown University professor emeritus Richard W. Clapp that claims the state of Washington presented “invalid and misleading” calculations, failed to account for length of exposure and latency period of cancer, and misrepresented its scope.
In fact, Alderman says the EHHI will soon release a report poking holes in nearly two dozen studies that failed to find danger in synthetic-turf fields. For affirmative evidence that artificial surfaces are treacherous, she cites a 2015 EHHI/Yale study that found 96 chemicals in crumb-rubber fields—half of which had never been tested by the government and 12 of which were known carcinogens—and posits that those figures alone should scare districts away from synthetic turf. (Others would argue that the presence of carcinogens doesn’t alone constitute a danger as long as the quantity is not too high.)
Alderman, who spoke at a school-board meeting in North Haven earlier this year, feels that even the encapsulated crumb rubber the town plans to install comes with issues. The material, she notes, has never been suitably tested; she worries that, with enough wear, the plastic coating could break down to expose the potentially hazardous crumb rubber. “Our position has always been—and it has not changed—that there is no safer material for students, athletes, and children to play on than grass,” she said.
Uncertainty about the safety of artificial-turf fields was the impetus for the ongoing federal-government study, which was announced in February 2016, after Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal, of Connecticut, and Bill Nelson, of Florida, called for the Obama administration to initiate a review of the issue. “There are serious and alarming questions that need to be answered,” Blumenthal said recently in a phone interview. “There has been research on both sides, and the point is to have the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which has an official responsibility, determine the safety and health effects.”
But with a new administration in office, Blumenthal said he’s not confident the study will become public too soon. “I have no clear sense of what the deadline may be,” he said. According to a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency, which is involved in the study, “EPA and CDC/ATSDR are currently visiting a small number of fields to collect exposure information to better characterize people’s exposure to tire crumbs. A peer-reviewed report summarizing study results will be published as soon as possible after the exposure characterization part of the study concludes.”
Gabriele views the crumb-rubber issue as deeply personal. When she was pregnant with her daughter Alice, now 7, she worked in a factory that produced trophies featuring plates made from used tires. After Alice was born and diagnosed with a condition called craniosynostosis—which causes abnormal skull growth and can affect brain development—doctors theorized that Gabriele’s exposure to the tire waste might have been to blame.
“We’re not typically conservative people, but we’ve been beside a hospital bed, we’ve seen our kid hooked up to tubes,” she explained one afternoon last month, wiping away tears as she sat alongside her husband Tim in her North Haven backyard, with the couple’s two kids playing on the swing set behind them. “I’ll be conservative all day over that.”
Gabriele’s position on artificial turf is simple: It’s not worth the risk. She wonders how easier maintenance could ever justify an expensive surface that can increase ACL tears, concussions, and staph infections; overheat dangerously; and potentially release elevated levels of carcinogens into the air her kids breathe. To her, even the suggestion of a link to cancer makes the risk unwise. “Isn’t the onus on them to prove to me that it’s safe, instead of on me to prove to them that it’s dangerous?” she said.
Presented with this argument, the North Haven Middle School Building Committee’s Johns was unmoved, citing the science that informed his group’s decision. “We’re trying to provide athletic facilities that are up to the standards of other towns,” he said.
The artificial-turf fields in North Haven are under construction now and will be ready for use by November. Gabriele and her allies have filed a petition asking for a town meeting at which residents would vote on whether to delay installation until the federal-government study is complete or to choose a new infill for the fields. If that petition is denied, Gabriele says she will reluctantly file a writ of mandamus, asking a judge to compel North Haven to grant a town meeting.
As an example of their hopes for North Haven, Gabriele points to the school system in Martha’s Vineyard, just off the coast of Cape Cod, which last spring scuttled a plan for artificial-turf fields and instead invested in more attentive maintenance for its natural-grass fields.* North Haven, however, remains stubborn.
Gabriele is currently running for the school board, while Morfi, her fellow anti-turf crusader, is pursuing a spot on the finance board. The two parents say they will fight against the artificial-turf fields for as long as the town uses them. But come next month, the children of North Haven will be rolling around in crumb rubber, whether it is safe for them to do so or not.
* This article originally stated that the school system in Martha's Vineyard invested in "better" drainage for its natural-grass fields. We regret the error.