MONTREAL—It is important to remember one important fact in the ongoing debate about the potential health risks of crumb rubber: most of the studies that have deemed it safe have been commissioned by neutral bodies, such as government or education.
And that means detractors can't pass off results as industry biases, say executives who spoke during the 2014 Rubber Recycling Symposium, held Oct. 22-24 in Montreal. The Rubber Manufacturers' Association and the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada organized the event.
“The studies that say they did not identify a cancer risk are studies from bastions of conservative thought like the state of California, and these are actually helpful to us, to be able to actually say government looked at this issue,” said Tracey Norberg, the Rubber Manufacturers' Association senior vice president and general counsel.
“Most of the research was done by independent universities. It wasn't industry-sponsored research,” said Stephen Murphy, chief path finder of Phoenix Innovation Technology Inc. “There's a plethora of documentation out there.”
Crumb rubber as infill in turf became a hot topic again in recent weeks after NBC News aired the story, “How Safe Is the Artificial Turf Your Child Plays On?”
The piece focused on Amy Griffin, associate head coach for the women's soccer team at the University of Washington, who identified 38 U.S. soccer players who had been diagnosed with blood cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma, including 34 goalkeepers. The story pointed out they shared one trait: They often competed on artificial turf, comprised of crumb rubber granules.
“Why (the results of independent research) was ignored as part of the reporting—media is media—and so what you have to do is manage that response in responsible fashion,” said Murphy, who said he spent three years in the field turf industry.
“You can expose the studies in a responsible way and address the perception, because right now we're dealing with the perception issue, not necessarily the reality. So I think the good news is there's a lot of independent research not commanded by the industry.”
Norberg said the report did not provide any substantive facts, nor did it offer any new information.
“I think it's important to realize, when you listen to the NBC story, that they're not presenting any data; they're not presenting any scientific research; there's nothing new that is in the scientific domain on this topic,” she said.
Conversely, the Synthetic Turf Council lists 60 studies on its website, all of which conclude that crumb rubber poses no health risks.
“It's been studied by the federal level, the state level, and I don't what else we can do,” said Barry Takallou, president and CEO of the Crumb Rubber Manufacturers. “The science is there, and for people to say there is a problem with this material, there's no science to say there's a problem.”
No data to substantiate claims
Norberg said the RMA commissioned a study on the topic several years ago and made that data public by posting the research on the organization's website, www.rma.org. She said findings were last updated in August 2013.
“It's very unfortunate that the children got cancer,” she said. “We all can empathize with that based on our own experiences.
“It's not a fun thing to deal with, but there is no link between those cancers and this product.”
That is the same conclusion drawn by Scandinavian researchers, according to Jean-Pierre Taverne, the European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers' Association's European Union technical coordinator, end-of-life tires.
NBC News reporter Hannah Rappleye wrote that “tiny black rubber crumbs of which the fields are made—chunks of old tires—get everywhere: in players' uniforms, in their hair, in their cleats.
“But for goalkeepers, whose bodies are in constant contact with the turf, it can be far worse,” she wrote. “In practices and games, they make hundreds of dives, and each plunge sends a black cloud of tire pellets into the air. The granules get into their cuts and scrapes, and into their mouths.”
The NBC story promp-ted scores of coverage from other news outlets and environmental blogs across the U.S. and abroad.
“Once that NBC news popped up, there were questions coming up from a certain number of channels from different countries in Europe,” Taverne said. “There might be a need to set up some sort of alert ... some activity in terms of communication (between Europe and North American on the issue). It might be something to further work on.”
In the U.S. alone, the STC estimates that 4,500 venues—including fields, running tracks and playgrounds—have been constructed with crumb rubber.
Glenn Maidment, president of Mississauga, Ontario-based TRAC, said the industry must rally together to fight against the negative publicity.
“The concern that I have right now is, maybe this is a news cycle, and maybe tomorrow they'll go on to something else, but anecdotally, I've already heard that sports installation projects have been canceled, put aside as a result of this NBC thing,” he said.
“It seems to me the industry needs to get very, very proactive very quickly, to get good information out there so that we don't virtually stymie the whole industry. I know the (STC) is taking the lead on this, but that has to be all our concern. To grow these markets, we don't need this kind of negative experience.”
Norberg believes that states in the U.S. might try to establish guidelines in the future. One Congressman, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., wrote the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, requesting an official study of the potential health risks of crumb rubber in artificial athletic turf.
“It is clear that more data is needed to evaluate the risks that exist from exposure to crumb rubber in athletic turf and its effect on human health,” Pallone wrote a letter dated Oct. 10.
Norberg, however, said in a study published late in 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found very low levels of toxic substances at four turf fields in North Carolina, Maryland, Georgia and Ohio. According to the EPA website, airborne levels of particulate matter, metals and volatile organic compounds found in those fields were on par with those found in nearby areas. Lead, zinc and particulate matter were at acceptable levels.
The EPA, however, said no more conclusions could be drawn without further study.
“We, of course, don't oppose future research,” Norberg said. “At this point, we're comfortable with crumb rubber.”
Industry executives say they must continue to get their message out. “The stewardship industry has a lot of skin in the game, in this process,” Maidment said, “and they do need to be part of the solution.”