Environmentalists question safety of artificial turf

An environmental group is raising questions about artificial turf made from recycled crumb rubber that is being installed by schools across the United States.

North Haven Connecticut-based Environment and Human Health, Inc. initiated an exploratory study with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to examine whether rubber tire crumbs may cause health hazards or environmental damage.

Researchers identified four compounds in the recycled tire crumbs; benzothiazole causes skin and eye irritation and is harmful if swallowed, butylated hydroxyanisole is a recognized carcinogen, n-hexadecane is a severe irritant based on human and animal studies, and 4-(t-octyl) phenol is corrosive and destructive to mucous membranes.

“When a recycled tire is ground down to crumbs or pellets the chemicals are available for exposures both as dust and, on a hot field, as gases,” says David Brown, an oncologist at Greenwich Hospital and a board member at the environmental group.

“Players on turf fields have severe exposure to the crumbs and the dust. Mere observations of children who play on the field show that exposures are very high.”

Brown says the rubber industry should at the least post signs on fields stating that there is a possible, untested hazard from the exposure and that children use the fields at their own risk. He says the industry should not assure people that the fields are safe.

Controversy over artificial turf has escalated recently.

Mary Jane Martina, who heads the department of analytical chemistry at the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station, says that more testing is needed.

Before calling for the artificial turf to be taken off the market, further examination of the materials must be conducted, Martina says. “The product, crumb rubber derived from recycled tires, clearly merits additional study,” she says. “Efforts should be coordinated at the federal level and should include both state and municipal labs.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has started testing on several playground and running tracks, says Dale Kemery, a press officer in Washington D.C. But he says testing has been delayed due to difficulties locating willing venues.

“Some work has been done, but it isn’t complete and there are no results in,” Kemery says. He says if there is any regulatory action it would be “well into the future.”

Michael Blumenthal, vice president at the Rubber Manufacturers Association trade group says the study by the environmental group raises a lot of questions, which requires the attention of the ground rubber industry. But he says the analysis from the report is overstated. He says the study raises questions instead of providing answers.

“Quite honestly, I think that the report out of Connecticut was done for one reason and one reason only. It was done so that these institutions could get awarded more research dollars,” Blumenthal says. “I think it was a self-serving exercise.”

Blumenthal acknowledges that the study presents problems for the recycled rubber manufacturers. “Parents obviously do not want to expose their child to any kind of unhealthy environmental situation,” he says. “Of course parents are going to be very careful when they hear all of these reports out there” questioning artificial turf.

Jerry Swensen president of Auburndale Recycling Center Inc. in Auburndale, Wisconsin says the biggest issue facing the tire recycling industry is misconceptions about the products the industry produces. “There has been a lot of bad press on tire recycling over the last year,” he says. “It has caused some market turmoil.”

The industry needs to get its message out and educate customers about the benefits of products made from recycled tires, Swensen says. “Slowly the mentality is starting to change and people are realizing that the products we produce are beneficial.”