Is synthetic turf safe?

10 On Your Side Investigates

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – As a Virginia Beach athletic complex looks at the possibility of installing synthetic fields, 10 On Your Side is taking a closer look at whether they are safe and affordable. The fields enable more play, but environmental groups and a college soccer coach say they may endanger athletes.

“Why do we assume that the students and athletes playing on those fields are safe?” asked Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, Inc. The agency includes doctors, scientists and public health professionals who have been studying synthetic turf for the past seven years.

Currently, the Princess Anne complex has seven fields with natural grass. The city parks & recreation department is looking into converting three of those to synthetic and installing a fourth. One possibility is using crumb rubber turf.

An NBC News investigation in October featured a University of Washington soccer coach, who found more than three dozen players diagnosed with cancer. All played on crumb rubber synthetic fields, and most were goalies, who are down on the turf more than other players.

Coach Amy Griffin says since the NBC report aired, her list of athletes who have played on synthetic turf who have since been diagnosed with cancer has more than doubled. It’s not scientific proof of a link, but it is causing concern.

The crumb rubber comes from recycled tires, and those granules are down in between the synthetic blades of grass to cushion falls.

Alderman wants someone on the nationwide level, such as public health agencies or environmental regulators, to start collecting data on crumb rubber turf. Several high school and college fields in Hampton Roads already have the fields, as well as thousands more across the country.

“We have not had a congressional hearing on these synthetic turf fields. This is absolutely outrageous,” Alderman said.

The Synthetic Turf Council responded to the NBC story, citing more than 60 technical studies and reports involving crumb rubber over the past 22 years. STC says the evidence shows no negative health effects. Others in the area agree with that position.

“To this point there is no conclusive evidence that the crumb rubber actually has increased the exposure to health risks,” said Kevin Bennington, who manages the Princess Anne Complex.

Old Dominion University has crumb rubber synthetic in Ballard Stadium. Assistant Athletic Director for Facilities Greg Smith said he has heard and read the claims. “I haven’t heard anything definitive that’s come from it.”

Alderman said it stands to reason that if tires have harmful components, then the crumb rubber that comes from tires would be harmful as well. “We’ve got a whole generation of our children now playing on these fields,” she said. “We need to protect them. We know what they’re playing on is toxic, and nobody is collecting the health data.”

Inside the Story

We have not had a congressional hearing on these synthetic turf fields. This is absolutely outrageous. – Nancy Alderman, President of Environment and Human Health, Inc.
To this point there is no conclusive evidence that the crumb rubber actually has increased the exposure to health risks. – Kevin Bennington, Sports Management Coordinator, Princess Anne Athletic Complex

The Environmental Protection Agency did conduct some research into crumb rubber five years ago, which it said was limited in scope. The agency says it will commission no further research, instead saying it is a state and local matter.

Bennington said the plan would be to begin the conversion late next year in time for spring 2016. Bennington coaches and his son plays on crumb rubber turf. “The health of my child is top priority in my book,” he said.

“The big attraction is the increase in the amount of programming that synthetic fields will make possible,” said Bennington. “We can go from about 1,200 to 1,500 hours of programming to almost 3,000 hours a year of programming.”

Bennington said the synthetic fields would be used for games and tournaments only, and not for everyday practice. He said the 14 leagues and recreation associations that use Princess Anne have been calling for synthetic turf. He said there are too many kids, and not enough places to play.

On top of the health controversy comes the cost of installation. 10 On Your Side found a general estimate for a two-acre, football sized field of crumb rubber synthetic turf is $1 million. Bennington said so far he has looked at estimates of around $4 million total, for a package including the four synthetic fields plus upgraded lighting.

The Princess Anne complex hosts local football, soccer, rugby and lacrosse leagues, as well as tournaments that travel to Virginia Beach from outside the area. Bennington said it creates a ripple effect of economic benefit. “We collaborate on bringing tournaments to the facility from out of town and with the tournaments come the guests,” he explained. “We have an advantage. We have a beach.”

If increased traffic is the goal, natural turf consultant Jerad Minnick said he can get more use out of grass without having to convert to synthetic. “It’s a cliche that grass won’t take it. The grass of old isn’t the grass of new,” said Minnick, the head of Growing Innovations of Rockville, Md.

Minnick said durable Bermuda grass grows well in Hampton Roads and is usually the better option. With a $50,000 drainage system and proper aeration, he said he can make a natural field more durable and virtually rainout-proof.

Minnick said it is up to individual communities to weigh the cost of installation against the increase in usage. “Some people decide that we know we’ll never get payback on this. That’s a decision that the municipality or such can make. Are the taxpayers okay with that?”

Bennington said it will increase physical fitness and recreation opportunities for the area. He said he will continue to research synthetic turf over the coming months and seek input from leagues, athletes, parents and the public.

The following localities in the Hampton Roads area have fields with artificial turf:

  • Hampton
  • James City County
  • Norfolk
  • Poquoson
  • Virginia Beach
  • Williamsburg
  • Yorktown

Additional resources:

Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.gov/

Synthetic Turf Council: http://www.syntheticturfcouncil.org/

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