Could artificial turf cause cancer?

Artificial turf has always been seen as practical; not only are old tires being put to good use, athletic facilities are spared the expense and…

Could artificial turf be linked to cancer? (Shutterstock)

Artificial turf has always been seen as practical; not only are old tires being put to good use, athletic facilities are spared the expense and maintenance costs of keeping up with real grass. There appears to be a huge potential down-side to this common athletic tool, however–it may be giving people cancer.

Artificial turf is made of synthetic grass fibers, filled in with black or green pieces of re-purposed rubber, typically gained from old tires. It was first introduced to the public in 1965 by Donald L. Elbert, James M. Faria, and Robert T. Wright, employees of Monsanto Company, a company now best-known for its genetically modified crop products. The University of Connecticut Health Center indicates in 1967, Indiana State built the first stadium with outdoor artificial turf, a product called Astroturf.

SEE ALSOProtests against Monsanto

Since then, many debates have surfaced as to the health risks of artificial turf exposure. Concerns have ranged from an increase in athletic injuries to cancer, with parents, teachers and other officials worried what prolonged exposure to tire particles might mean for children. The rubber in artificial turf heats up on hot days, causing the rubber particles to release small amounts of chemicals. The question is: Are these chemicals being released in enough quantity to actually cause someone harm?

What the research says about artificial turf and cancer

First and foremost, there are no studies linking artificial turf to cancer, and the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry group, says that the evidence collected so far by scientists and state and federal agencies proves that artificial turf is safe.

“We’ve got 14 studies on our website that says we can find no negative health effects,” said to NBC News, Dr. Davis Lee, a Turf Council board member. While those studies aren’t “absolutely conclusive,” he added, “There’s certainly a preponderance of evidence to this point that says, in fact, it is safe.”

Other research and a number of case studies suggest otherwise, though, like the inconclusive evidence saying artificial turf is safe, these studies and individual accounts also don’t prove the turf causes cancer. What has been proven is that, in its natural setting, artificial turf does leech out potentially dangerous substances.

Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI) notes artificial turf was examined in the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station report, and found to leech more than two dozen chemicals into the environment, some of which have been linked to cancer in other studies, with four compounds conclusively identified with confirmatory tests: benzothiazole; butylated hydroxyanisole; n-hexadecane; and 4-(t-octyl) phenol.

“Those chemicals identified with confirmatory analytical studies at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station study have the following reported actions:

  • Benzothiazole: Skin and eye irritation, harmful if swallowed. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole: Recognized carcinogen, suspected endocrine, gastrointestinal toxicant, immunotoxicant, neurotoxicant, skin and sense-organ toxicant. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • n-hexadecane: severe irritant based on human and animal studies. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • 4-(t-octyl) phenol: corrosive and destructive to mucous membranes. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.

The study also detected metals that were leached from the tire crumbs. Zinc was the predominant metal, but selenium, lead and cadmium were also identified,” states EHHI.

In addition to the substances found in the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station study, in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated their artificial turf data, stating another concern for individuals in close contact with this athletic product was exposure to lead.

“The risk for harmful lead exposure is low from new fields with elevated lead levels in their turf fibers because the turf fibers are still intact and the lead is unlikely to be available for harmful exposures to occur,” stated the CDC. “As the turf ages and weathers, lead is released in dust that could then be ingested or inhaled, and the risk for harmful exposure increases. If exposures do occur, CDC currently does not know how much lead the body will absorb; however, if enough lead is absorbed, it can cause neurological development symptoms (e.g., deficits in IQ). Additional tests are being performed by NJDHSS to help us better understand the absorption of lead from these products.”

While no link between these risks and actual cancer cases have been established, some experts believe the individual reports speak for themselves.

In the NBC News report, soccer coach Amy Griffin said she was visiting athletes in the hospital during 2009, two of which were goalkeepers diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She hadn’t thought much about the correlation between the illness and artificial turf until a nurse made the comment, “Don’t tell me you guys are goalkeepers. You’re the fourth goalkeeper I’ve hooked up this week.”

Since then, Griffin has compiled a list of 38 American soccer players who have been diagnosed with cancer. Thirty-four of those players are goalies, individuals who have the most contact with the turf compared to other players.

SEE ALSO: Sick Building Syndrome: Is your office making you ill?

The case reports suggest athletes and those spending time on artificial turf may be putting themselves at-risk in a manner similar for people who work in rubber and tire plants.

“Use of recycled tire shreds or crumbs in athletic fields, gardening and playgrounds involves repeated and direct exposures for both children and adults to tire dust and some chemicals similar to those in tire plants,” stated EHHI. “A comprehensive assessment of the information known about the health risks to the public is necessary to assess safety.”