WASHINGTON—Three federal agencies said they will undertake a coordinated research project to study the human health and environmental effects of recycled crumb rubber used as artificial turf on athletic fields and playgrounds.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced the joint research project Feb. 12, saying that a draft status report would be released by the end of 2016.
“Concerns have been raised by the public about the safety of recycled tire crumb used in playing fields and playgrounds in the United States,” said the background statement to the action plan on the crumb rubber research. “Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb. But the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”
NBC News broadcasts in October 2014 and October 2015 anecdotally linked crumb rubber turf to elevated levels of various cancers in young soccer players.
Although the NBC reports said there was no direct evidence linking crumb rubber to cancer, the stories created a widespread call for further study, especially from federal and state legislators.
The California Department of Resources Recovery and Recycling (CalRecycle) commissioned a three-year, $2.86 million study of crumb rubber turf last year from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
However, members of Congress—among others—felt there should be research on the federal level.
In November 2015, four members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote the EPA with 10 questions about what the agency knows about possible connections between rubber turf and cancer.
This was followed in January 2016 by a letter from Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., to President Obama, asking for a comprehensive federal study of rubber athletic turf.
According to the plan posted on the EPA website, the objectives of the research are:
c To determine key knowledge gaps;
c To identify and characterize the chemical compounds found in tire crumb;
c To characterize how people are exposed to these compounds based on activities on playgrounds and athletic fields; and
c To identify follow-up activities that could be conducted to provide additional insights into possible risks.
The agencies will evaluate the existing scientific data related to rubber athletic turf, and also conduct outreach to stakeholders, including athletes, parents, coaches, government agencies and industry representatives, according to the action plan.
Tire crumb testing will include the evaluation of various manufacturing processes; laboratory analyses to characterize chemical components in newer and older tire crumb at different temperatures; determination of how quickly tire crumb components are absorbed by the body; and evaluation of potential cancer and non-cancer toxicity of tire crumb constituents based on existing information databases.
After the tire crumb testing, the agencies will launch a pilot-scale study to characterize exposure under use conditions, according to the action plan.
Scientists will identify various exposure scenarios, and design and conduct the pilot study based on those scenarios, the action plan said. The study will consider possible methods of exposure to tire crumb, including breathing, accidental ingestion and physical contact.
Reaction to the research study was universally positive among stakeholders.
“The tire manufacturing industry is committed to safety and to sound environmental stewardship relating to our products at every stage, including end-of-life use,” the Rubber Manufacturers Association said in a statement. “RMA and its members welcome additional scientific derived from scrap tires, as well as other materials that may be added to crumb rubber used in scrap tire market applications.”
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which earlier urged the EPA to defend rubber athletic turf against its detractors, said the multi-agency study is a positive development.
“ISRI plans to engage, as appropriate, with these agencies and other stakeholders to assist in whatever way possible,” said Mark Reiter, ISRI vice president of government relations. “We are hopeful that the federal government's involvement will give parents and other stakeholders additional peace of mind that children and athletes alike can safely play on these surfaces.”
The Synthetic Turf Council also said it welcomed the multi-agency project and looked forward to participating in it.
“We have consistently said that we support all additional research,” the STC said. “At the same time, we strongly reaffirm that the existing studies clearly show that artificial turf fields and playgrounds with crumb rubber infill are safe and have no link to any health issues.”
Caroline Cox, research director for the Center for Environmental Health, noted the wide variety of toxic chemicals in crumb rubber.
“We appreciate the government's decision to study the issues, but in the meantime parents should know if their kids play on these fields, they can take straightforward steps to minimize exposures,” Cox said. Among her recommendations were:
c Avoiding rubber turf fields on hot days;
c Removing all crumb rubber pellets from students' clothing, bodies and equipment after playing;
c Making sure student athletes wash their hands thoroughly after playing and not eat on the field; and
c Encouraging schools and parks to use other infill materials, such as cork and coconut husks.
More information on the study, with updates, is at www.epa.gov/TireCrumb.