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Synthetic Turf Playing Fields - Potential Health Effects

April 12, 2016

Over the past several years, many educational institutions have installed on their athletic fields new synthetic turf containing “crumb rubber” – black pellets made from ground up tires – primarily to obtain the advantages of all-season use and lower maintenance costs. In recent months, however, the media and a growing group of critics have contended that the crumb rubber used in these fields is potentially dangerous to student athletes, and others who are exposed to these fields. While the scientific studies to date have generally found no cause for concern, the movement against crumb rubber is nevertheless escalating. This alert advises schools using or considering installing crumb rubber turf of the key agency investigations underway and their potential ramifications.

The criticisms arise from concerns that crumb rubber contains several known or suspected carcinogens. The black pellets used as infill can stick to shoes, clothing, and skin, and thus many parent groups and health agencies are now expressing concern about those carcinogens and the role they may play in causing cancer. A coach in Washington has collected a list of 150 soccer players, mostly goalies, with cancer. Multiple health studies by state and federal agencies to date have nevertheless not identified any actual link with cancer, but media stories have inflamed the feared risks and stirred Congressional interest.

To respond, several state and federal agencies have initiated investigations. The key ones are:

  • California’s OEHHA, with U.S. EPA collaboration, is conducting a three-year study focused on the materials contained in these fields and how exposures will occur. The OEHHA has already held a day-long science review on crumb rubber. OEHHA recently asked the National Toxicology Program to conduct short-term in vivo and in vitro studies on chemicals released from crumb rubber, explaining: “There is an urgent need for such toxicological information given that exposures are ongoing and involve children.”
  • EPA, the CDC, and the CPSC are jointly engaged in an investigation, prompted by Congressional and White House inquiries, along the same lines as the OEHHA effort. It appears the effort is being led by ATSDR, which released a federal register notice of two planned studies, the first addressing the material and the second, exposure levels. ATSDR has solicited public comments.
  • The European Chemicals Agency has also begun a review after articles reporting concerns over crumb rubber began to appear in the UK this year.

The investigators intend to sample crumb rubber from various athletic fields and study the way players interact with the material. All three of these initiatives could involve periodic press releases, scientific meetings, and announced updates and findings that could feed the media and related criticisms of crumb rubber use on athletic fields. Many communities in the U.S. are under pressure to post warning signs or avoid using crumb rubber. In 2009, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced its intent to switch to non-recycled infills for all new field installations. And according to a recent article on crumb rubber in the L.A. Times, when an 11-acre recreation field at UCLA had to be replaced, the school wrestled with published concerns about crumb rubber: "We had to stop and have a thorough discussion" (Rich Mylin, UCLA Director of Recreation Venues).

Colleges, universities, and other schools who have crumb rubber fields or are looking to install them are likely to be disproportionately affected if the agency findings are critical of crumb rubber. The schools and their counsel may wish to consider appropriate involvement in the investigations to ensure their interests and concerns are considered. The Law360 article linked here provides further information.

For more information, please contact the professional(s) listed below, or your regular Crowell & Moring contact.

William L. Anderson
Retired Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1.301.785.9234
Cheryl A. Falvey
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1.202.624.2675
Laurel Pyke Malson
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1.202.624.2576