This topic is very contentious.

And it isn’t going away anytime soon.

Not long ago, a friend asked me what I thought about ESPN’s “E:60” fillvestigative report, which aired late last year, discussing the alleged links between cancer and crumb-rubber infill on synthetic turf fields. What I emphasized most in my response was this: We, as in the sports turf industry, need to do more research on this troubling subject.

Cancer is not a matter to be taken lightly, no matter which side of the argument you’re on. The sports turf industry also should welcome any additional testing that the government, industry businesses or independent research firms want to do.

Thankfully, that’s exactly what’s happening, as in mid-February the Obama administration announced the implementation of a federal study to look into potential health risks with crumb-rubber infill on synthetic fields.

I referred to this topic as “very contentious.” Why? There are many reasons.

One is that it involves the safety of human beings. Another is that the synthetic turf industry has refuted all of the cancer-causing concerns that crumb-rubber infill is alleged to contain. Also, no matter what infill we’re talking about, synthetic turf itself remains a testy issue with many field managers who take pride in the acquired skills of growing and caring for natural grass surfaces. (Case in point: SportsField Management recently tweeted about the subject, and one field manager, a proponent of natural grass fields, responded with #PlasticIsNotTheAnswer.)

So how did this issue get its legs? Where did the concerns start, and are they backed up by relevant facts? What will be the federal government’s role moving forward? How is the national debate over crumb rubber shining a negative light on the synthetic turf industry, and how is the industry responding?

The future of sports field maintenance may hinge on the answers to these questions.

The genesis of the debate

Crumb-rubber infill is derived from scrap car and truck tires that are ground up and recycled. Two types exist: ambient and cryogenic. Together these make up the most widely used infill in the synthetic sports field and landscape market – according to the Synthetic Turf Council (STC) there are an estimated 11,000 multi-use synthetic turf sports fields and playgrounds in North American schools, colleges, parks and professional sports stadiums.

Crumb-rubber infill has been a source of debate across the country since late 2014, when parents and health and environment advocates began demanding studies about whether repeated contact with the material, suspected by some to be carcinogenic, could cause cancer (the ground-up rubber pieces can end up in the mouths, ears and clothing of athletes). The list of potentially harmful elements that have been found in tires includes benzene, mercury and arsenic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Ingredients vary by manufacturer and the recycling process blends different brands into the same batch, so it’s nearly impossible to predict if any of the harmful elements listed above will end up on a specific field.

Crumb rubber is one of several available infills for synthetic turf athletic fields. 

Late in 2014 is also when Amy Griffin, a University of Washington assistant women’s soccer coach, came forward with a list of a few dozen young athletes with cancer who regularly played on crumb-rubber infill surfaces.

“I really didn’t think anything of it at first,” Griffin told the Los Angeles Times.

Though some dismissed her admittedly unscientific tally, word quickly spread and she began hearing from more afflicted athletes nationwide. “I know it’s 100 percent anecdotal,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “But if you were in my shoes, listening to these stories, you would say this is too coincidental.”

Griffin’s list of cancer-stricken athletes now includes more than 200 people from across the country who played a variety of sports on synthetic turf fields, including football and field hockey. Half of the ill athletes on the list are soccer goalies under age 35 whose position requires them to do a lot of diving into the fields, frequently exposing them to crumb-rubber pieces.

The 2015 FIFA Women’s (Soccer) World Cup was played on artificial fields in Canada — a controversial decision and an unpopular one with the athletes.

NBC News took these claims made by Griffin and produced a segment that was broadcast nationally in 2014. ESPN followed with the aforementioned “E:60” report last year. Much like the NBC report, ESPN, which played up frightening imagery and heartbreaking accounts of cancer deaths, didn’t reach a definitive conclusion about crumb rubber’s link to cancer.

What it did was shed some much-needed light on the startling lack of in-depth clinical research on the matter.

The call for more research

As a 17-year member of the U.S. national soccer team, three-time Olympic medalist Julie Foudy has plenty of experience playing on fields of all types, including those with crumb-rubber infill. In November of last year, Foudy authored a piece for ESPN — which directly tied into ESPN’s “E:60” report — titled “Turf Wars: How Safe Are The Fields Where We Play?”

In the piece, Foudy expressed dire concerns over Griffin’s claims.

“Given how vulnerable children are to toxic exposure, I watch with angst every weekend as I see young children being, well, young children — rolling in the turf, lying on the turf, building ‘mountains’ out of the pellets and even having picnics on it,” Foudy wrote. “Because that is what children do. They don’t know any better. But we as adults sure should. Science, as we have been told over and over, takes a long time. But who, in the interim, is going to help us understand the risk involved? I understand every parent has a different risk threshold. And I realize life is full of risks, even including harmful chemicals that we interact with on a daily basis. As parents, we each have to decide what is best for our children.

“We all can agree we want our kids active and moving and healthy. But we also have a right to know whether the turf fields our kids are playing on contain harmful chemicals.”

And that’s what it comes down to: research.

A topic with this level of sensitivity and magnitude needs as much research, data and studies compiled as possible.

“I think there’s a lot of scare, a lot of fear being played off of this issue,” Dr. John Sorochan says. Sorochan is the distinguished professor of turfgrass science at the University of Tennessee, an expert on this crumb-rubber infill debate and part of the research team at the University of Tennessee’s Center for Athletic Field Safety. This facility, which opened in 2010, features 57 synthetic turf experimental plots for research.

Sorochan is a staunch proponent of more research on the subject of crumb-rubber infill and cancer. “Let’s get the data, put it out there and see what’s there. Let’s get the science of this issue … to put to rest people’s fears, or to validate those fears,” he says.

Close-up views of a synthetic turf system with crumb-rubber infill and then crumb-rubber particles themselves (below). Crumb-rubber infill is derived from scrap car and truck tires that are ground up and recycled.

Here’s a fact: Several tests have been done to verify the safety of crumb-rubber infill, and these tests say there is zero “reliable” evidence that crumb-rubber infill causes cancer. These tests and studies were done by established and credible doctors in the medical field and in academia.

“Yes, there have been several studies done, for example some by Dr. Andy McNitt at Penn State University, to show there’s no reason for alarm [regarding crumb-rubber infill potentially causing cancer]” Sorochan says. “You talk to people at [tire manufacturer] Liberty Tire, and they’ve got employees who’ve worked in their grinding factory for 20 or 30 years. They’re exposed to those tires every day, and they don’t have any higher rates of incidents of cancer.”

The STC’s response

The Synthetic Turf Council has refuted claims linking crumb-rubber infill to cancer and has repeatedly advocated for more research on the subject.

“Any chemicals bound within tire rubber in the vulcanization process remain bound in the same manner when re-processed into crumb-rubber infill, or any other recycled rubber product,” the STC said. “There is no change in the makeup or content of the rubber. When tested with the same high standards required for children’s toys, recycled rubber consistently shows only trace amounts of chemicals of concern, all well below safe thresholds, and all still bound in a manner unavailable to the human body.”

The STC also says that no link to cancer has been found by researchers at the Connecticut Department of Public Health, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and numerous universities. It also cites studies conducted in France and Norway.

“It’s important to note that when we talk about crumb-rubber infill in synthetic turf, we are also talking about the same recycled rubber that is used in a variety of products that are widely considered to be safe, such as sneakers, garden hoses, hospital floors, and an array of other uses,” the STC said in a statement.

The STC also often cites the many benefits of synthetic turf, perhaps the largest being environmental. In a society that is becoming more environmentally conscious, concepts like water conservation and sustainability are moving to the forefront of peoples’ minds — this is especially true in the sports field maintenance industry.

According to the STC, depending on the region of the country, one full-size synthetic turf sports field saves 500,000 to 1 million gallons of water each year. In California, water conservation is an enormous concern, and sports fields aren’t excluded. An example of this can be seen at University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), where at one time, according to the Los Angeles Times, the 11-acre recreation field behind Pauley Pavilion required too much water and subsequently was being shut down for four months each year. That’s when the university decided to install synthetic turf — with crumb-rubber infill.

“We had to stop and have a thorough discussion,” Rich Mylin, UCLA’s director of recreation venues, told the newspaper. “We made sure our crumb rubber was sourced through the U.S. We felt comfortable.”

The new field, which opened last spring, will save an estimated 6 million gallons of water annually.

The government’s role

Recognizing a need for funding and more research, the federal government is now getting involved. February’s announcement of the federal study examining potential health risks with crumb-rubber infill was welcome news to all in this industry.

In a statement announcing the study, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. — who urged President Obama to authorize the study — said, “Parents and athletes of all ages want and deserve conclusive answers on whether exposure to crumb-rubber turf can make one sick. Combining the resources and expertise of three federal agencies to help find those answers is the right thing to do.”

For the study, the EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will deploy a team of about 50 federal employees and a research budget of $2 million. The agencies expect to release a draft report of findings and conclusions by the end of the year.

“I think this is the first time the federal government has put any money toward researching sports fields,” Sorochan says. “Unfortunately, it’s coming on a negative light. But this is a good thing; it shows we’re trying to make a difference.”

The STC also welcomed the news of the federal study.

“We welcome the announcement of this multi-agency effort,” the council said in a statement. “We have consistently said that we support all additional research. At the same time, we strongly reaffirm that the existing studies clearly show that artificial turf fields and playgrounds with crumb-rubber infill have no link to any health issues … We hope the federal government’s involvement, which we have been encouraging for years, will settle this matter once and for all, put parents’ minds at ease, and validate past and recent due diligence by public officials.”

The story of one town

The debate over this issue isn’t just taking place in federal courthouses. It’s affecting towns and cities across the country.

One example is Hamden, Connecticut, where the town council recently approved a crumb-rubber infill synthetic field for Hamden High School despite much opposition from citizens, as was reported in the New Haven Register on Feb. 23.

“This is a very difficult decision we face,” commissioner Jennifer Cutrali said during a contentious public hearing about the field’s installation, as reported in the New Haven Register. “It’s true, there’s no specific study link to cancer or health issues.”

“The town has the obligation to do everything it can to protect the health and welfare of residents,” said synthetic field opponent and Hamden resident Martin Mador, the newspaper reported. “Medical research has not yet definitively determined the risk. Why should you be willing to take that risk? My … advice to the town is to deny this real possibility of harm.

We are … knowingly introducing toxins into the environment.”

But several Hamden High School student athletes took the opposite view of Mador — they said they want the field approved.

“I’ve never gotten sick, and I’ve never seen my teammates sick,” one Hamden High School athlete, who plays on the field hockey and softball teams, told the council, according to the newspaper. She also said she has been injured playing on natural fields, but not on any synthetic fields with crumb-rubber infill. “We take risks every day, and this is a risk I’m willing to take,” the athlete said. “Everyone wants this field at our school.”

The need to know the truth

Google search “crumb rubber, turf, cancer” and you’ll see several more articles from newspapers around the country like the one referenced above, detailing instances where town councils and committees are addressing this issue in their communities.

The debate is growing at a rapid pace and is not likely to stop soon. The federal government’s plan to produce its comprehensive study is a huge, positive step toward settling the matter.

This research needs to happen. Dollars must be spent. But more long-term tests also need to be conducted by all involved parties. Along with the federal government’s study, why not put the academics and experts to work — inside industry experts like Sorochan and McNitt, and other doctors, scientists, researchers and professors?

What else can we do?

Let’s make sure all sides of the debate are heard and not allow TV reports to scare us. (Don’t forget: TV stations rely on ratings; the more shock value the better.)

Let’s be smart, knowledgeable and informed before we form an opinion.

Let’s make certain a large — and growing — segment of our industry isn’t being unfairly portrayed.

And, as always, let’s continue to make safety the most important priority on our country’s athletic fields.

“Every athletic field manager wants to maintain a safe surface,” Sorochan says. “That’s always been first and foremost. Look, if there is something to this, [as a parent] I would want to know. But I just don’t see it. I still let my kids play on artificial turf.”