Artificial Turf Fields Linked to Cancer and Other Potentially Fatal Hazards

In an article by Hannah Rappleye of NBC, the potentially fatal hazards of crumb rubber artificial turf are discussed.

A number of former goalies and soccer players have developed blood cancers or other types of cancer. Players – and goalies in particular – are exposed to the crumb rubber turf particles which become disturbed during play and get into their clothes, hair, and mouths.

The components of this turf which can contain benzene, carbon black and lead, and other potentially harmful chemicals and carcinogens.

What is clear from the article is that more testing needs to be done to make sure this turf is safe to play on for children and teenagers and not causing them to develop cancer.

History of Artificial Turf

Artificial turf was co-invented by employees of the Monsanto Company, Donald L. Elbert, James M. Faria, and Robert T. Wright, under the name Chemgrass as a way for children to play outdoors where grass was limited.

In 1964, the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island became one of the first institutions to install artificial turf.

However, it was in 1966 that Chemgrass took over the world of sports.

After the Houston Astros had completed their first season in the first-ever domed stadium, it was apparent that natural grass could not survive due to the lack of sunlight. Because of this dilemma, the AstroDome turned to artificial grass. The name of the material was then quickly renamed to AstroTurf.

AstroTurf became a popular fixture in the stadiums of professional sports organizations throughout the 1970s and 1980s. By 1988, however, a backlash began to develop. The English Football Association banned the material because it caused more injuries because the material was harder than natural grass. A 1995 poll conducted by the National Football League Players Association discovered that 93% of players believed playing on AstroTurf increased the chance of injury.

As a result, many stadiums began to switch back to natural grass –  such as the original Giants Stadium which had previously used artificial turf since it’s opening in 1976. By 2013, every Major League Baseball, with the exception of two teams, had all but eliminated AstroTurf.

With advancements in technology, companies found a way to improve artificial grass. One of the most popular forms is synthetic turf. This material, which is composed of synthetic fibers and tire scraps, is now being supported by the NFL, FIFA, Union of European Football Associations, recreational parks and on the fields of high schools across the county. In the United State alone, there are 11,000 fields containing synthetic turf.

What is Synthetic Turf?

According to the Synthetic Turf Council, this is the latest generation of synthetic turf that features “a grass-like ground cover that replicates lush natural grass in appearance and function. When used on athletic fields, it provides a consistent year-round, all-weather playing surface built to withstand extended use without downtime for recovery.

As a landscape cover, synthetic turf provides a low maintenance, weed-free surface that doesn’t need to be watered or fertilized, and is available in styles that look like the grass types that are prevalent locally.”

Synthetic turf typically include a drainage layer, a multi-layered backing system, and resilient “grass” blades. These “grass” blades have infilled with a granular filler which is meant to resemble natural turf. The Synthetic Turf Council describes “infilled” as a process where “the man-made grass blades are interspersed with a topsoil created with sand and/or granulated recycled tire rubber or other infill materials that provide the necessary stability, uniformity, and resiliency.

Each blade customarily stands above the infill material. The typical blade length and system characteristics are determined by the specific activity requirements. In some applications, the synthetic turf system includes a pad or elastic layer underneath the turf, often in combination with lower pile height and less infill.”

What Are the Health Concerns?

Prior to the incredibly detailed NBC News article by Hannah Rappleye, there were some concerns over people being exposed to ground-up recycled tires (“tire crumbs”). The Environment and Human Health, Inc.

(EHHI) began receiving inquiries regarding “children’s exposures to ground-up rubber tires that are the in-fill material in the new synthetic turf fields” in 2007. The reason for these queries is that tire crumb contains the following toxic materials, according the New Jersey Work Environment Council (NJWEC):

  • Toxic metals including zinc, lead, arsenic, cadmium, and chromium which have many harmful effects on humans and the environment.
  • Carcinogens including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
  • Latex and other rubbers which can cause allergic reactions.
  • Phthalates which have adverse effects on the reproductive organs, lungs, kidneys and liver.

The EHHI notes that exposure to these materials from workers in the rubber fabrication industry and in the rubber reclamation industry have resulted in “a spectrum of health effects, ranging from severe skin, eye, and respiratory irritation to three forms of cancer”

The NJWEC went as far to advise in 2008 that because of issues of “toxicity, movement, heat, cost, friction, sanitation, lifespan, maintenance, warranty, disposal costs, odor, loss of habitat, combustibility, should be thoroughly addressed before any decision to purchase is made. The community should carefully consider all the options including natural grass.”

Despite these concerns, there has been little research to prove otherwise. In fact, the Synthetic Turf Council claims that there have been over 75 independent and credible studies, including those from the EPA, that have “validated the safety of synthetic turf.” The EPA Study from December 2009 stated that “the health risks from inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact with synthetic turf and crumb rubber found every test result to be “below levels of concern.”

If research has been unable to discover any health risks involved with playing on synthetic turf, then how does that explain the fact that soccer coach Amy Griffin has been able to list 38 American soccer players – 34 of which are goaltenders – who have been diagnosed with cancer?

The NBC News article quotes Dr. Joel Forman, associate professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, who stated:

“None of [the studies] are long term, they rarely involve very young children and they only look for concentrations of chemicals and compare it to some sort of standard for what’s considered acceptable,” said Dr. Forman. “That doesn’t really take into account sub-clinical effects, long-term effects, the developing brain and developing kids.”

Furthermore, there haven’t been many studies that have focused on “whether ingesting the particles by mouth or absorbing them into the body through cuts and scrapes is dangerous.” Both of these scenarios are unique for athletes such as goalies.


The discussion regarding the safety the artificial turf has been raised for several years. In fact, New York State Assembly member Steve Englebright released a statement on November 5, 2007 that read:

“Before we take risks with our children’s health and drinking water quality, we need to make sure that the uncertainties . . . are fully investigated.”

In 2014, similar sentiment has been echoed by the likes of Dr. Joel Freeman. “Turf fields come with a number of real risks and a number of real benefits, who also added, “And every community … has to kind of weigh the different risks and benefits.”