The Debate Rages: Are Turf Fields Safe?

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The decision to build a turf field from recycled tires at the Potrero Hill Recreation Center remains at a standstill, as Potrero residents continue to debate the turf’s unknown, and potentially hazardous, health effects.

On March 18, 2015, Senator Jerry Hill (D, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties) presented Bill 47 to the State Capitol, which urged for a better cumulative study on the turf’s health impacts to be conducted. 

The bill also called for a temporary moratorium on the installation of crumb rubber at public or private fields and parks until Jan 1, 2018. The SB 47 research, if conducted, would analyze alternatives to crumb rubber by assessing the use of rice husks, coconut fibers and cork. Funding would be administered by the California Tire Recycling Management Fund.

In spite of rallied support, SB 47 stalled due to lobbying efforts. However, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recently announced plans to conduct a $3 million study to determine the health impact of rubber turfs. Lauren Ziese, acting director of OEHHA stated, “we want as many people as possible to join us and provide suggestions. Public input on the various aspects of the study, particularly the ways people might be exposed to chemicals when they use synthetic turf fields and playground mats, will help us design and conduct the best possible study.” The results of this study will help the state of California determine policy regarding the legality of using recycled tires in athletic turf fields and will be held between 2015-2018.

There is much debate over the safety and efficiency of synthetic turf fields, which are often made from recycled tires. Those that support the artificial fields explain that rubber turf materials can better withstand weather conditions, provide superior support for athletes’ hard landings and are more cost-efficient to maintain.

Those that oppose the artificial fields argue that their construction depletes natural land, has a high overhead cost, and has potential carcinogenic health effects. The last opposition, regarding the potential negative health impact from exposure to recycled rubber, has been gaining traction on Capitol Hill. This is because there have been a rise in cancers (like Lymphoma and Leukemia) and other diseases in young athletes, which many are linking to the recent exposure to artificial rubber. There are no conclusive studies that can either verify or dismiss this. Examinations, on both sides of the health debate, have not been expansive enough to form definitive conclusions.

According to The Environmental Protection Agency, some of the heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals found in shredded tires include mercury, lead, benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and arsenic. Industry leaders of the Synthetic Turf Council do not negate this, but they assure the public that, “the levels as they exist in tires…are very, very low.” 

Yet, given the consistency of the rubbery pellets, which are loosely distributed on the top layer of the synthetic playing fields, they are known to travel home with children and athletes.

While the EPA initially concluded that the synthetic rubber ingredient in the turf fields, dubbed “crumb rubber”, was not harmful, they have since changed their position. In 2014, the EPA publicly acknowledged that there is much not known about the links between synthetic turf and cancerous diseases. Their official statement calls for more testing to be done, though they have deferred action to individual states.

Prior to the Recreation Center news, Potrero Hill was one of the few communities of San Francisco to have steered clear of a faux field. According to The Synthetic Turf Council, the material can today be found in over 11,000 sports fields throughout the United States; making it an increasingly difficult substance to avoid.

The renovation of Potrero Hill Recreation field is part of a much larger construction plan for San Francisco’s parks that is funded by the partnership of City Fields Foundation and big-time investors, the Fischer brothers. Their outline for the community fields of San Francisco came together in 2006, but has been delayed due to the turf debates.