In the last few years, the controversy regarding the potentially hazardous material known as “crumb rubber” has become increasingly heated. Crumb rubber is most commonly used as the base material for turf fields, which serve as a popular alternative to traditional grass due to its low-maintenance costs and durability. However, research is becoming increasingly mixed as to whether this substance could be exposing athletes to potentially carcinogenic (cancerous) toxins.

Crumb rubber is made through a recycling process which turns old automotive and truck scrap tires into a smaller particulate substance. While most athletes who play on turf fields come into only limited contact with these particles, anecdotal studies have found a disproportionately high number of athletes who play on these fields have developed blood-related cancers. While it is currently unknown whether this correlation is incidental, it has nonetheless raised concerns that the health risks associated with crumb rubber are more severe than the companies who produce the material would have us believe.

Crumb rubber is made from approximately 20%-40% carbon black, a substance which has been labeled carcinogenic by the California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Beyond the potential cancer risks, research has found another hazardous property of crumb rubber: its susceptibility to heat. Numerous studies have concluded that crumb rubber can become as hot as 200°F on warm summer days, a heat which is sufficient to cause potentially serious burns.

But it has been the cancer concerns which have drawn national attention.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a limited study which concluded that the hazardous particles in question were not concentrated at dangerously high levels in the few fields examined. Simultaneously, the EPA released a statement acknowledging the limited nature of the study, and acknowledged that further research was necessary. But the EPA was not alone in their research. A 2006 study completed by a group of Norwegian researchers found that while VOCs (volatile organic compounds) were in fact found in the air above certain turf fields, they were not so concentrated to pose an immediate risk. They did however conclude that ingestion of the material dramatically increased the potential health concerns. In the end though, both the EPA as well as the Norwegian researchers were left with more questions than answers.

Concern over this kind of rubber has led different states to conduct their own studies, independent of the EPA. In 2010, a study done by the state of Connecticut looked at the risks associated with crumb rubber inhalation, and tentatively concluded that field usage was “not associated with elevated health risks”. More recently however, in 2013, the New Jersey Department for Health and Senior Services detected dangerously high levels of lead dust on synthetic turf fields in the state.

While the evidence of these studies has been contradictory and perturbing, it is the evidence collected by University of Washington’s soccer coach Amy Griffin which has caused the most alarm.  When Griffin began collecting stories of college age and younger soccer players, she found 38 incidents of athletes (who had grown up on turf fields) contracting blood-related cancers. In less than 5 years this list has grown from the initial 38 cases (36 of the cases involving goalies) to an astounding 126 (82 of whom were goalies). Goalies, who dive on the field and are more prone inhalation and ingestion of crumb rubber, seem to be the primary source of concern. Even so, the science has yet to back up these anecdotal testimonies, and athletes, coaches and young children continue to spend hours on the fields.

Dr. Joel Forman of New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital has been particularly outspoken regarding the gap in available data. Forman claims that the lack of long term studies make it particularly difficult to draw conclusions about the health effects crumb rubber could pose to athletes. In an NPR article regarding the issue, it was noted that “… it is known that some of the compounds found in tires, “even in chronic lower exposures” [said Forman] can be associated with subtle neurodevelopmental issues in children”. With this gap in available research, real conclusive evidence to tip the scale one way or another is hard to find, and the federal government has been hesitant to continue researching.

But as the old adage goes, perhaps it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The Epstein Law Firm is currently investigating the potential health risks of crumb rubber and artificial grass fields that use recycled rubber from tires. If you, or anyone you know, has recently contracted a blood-related cancer such as leukemia or lymphoma after extended contact with crumb rubber of if you have information about the relationship of crumb rubber to illness, please contact our office at 773-522-7000 or contact us to send a message to the firm directly.

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