Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Artificial Turf - Is it the Next Asbestos?

Have you ever heard of "ChemGrass"? No? Well, that's the original name Monsanto gave to its artificial grass product, which later became famous as "AstroTurf" after being installed in Houston's Astrodome in 1966. Fast forward to the year 2000, and the new incarnation of artificial turf - styrene butadiene rubber, or "crumb rubber" - began to be made of tiny black crumbs of pulverized tire rubber poured between artificial "grass" blades.

This crumb rubber seemed to be the answer to a multitude of problems. The loads of discarded tires that would otherwise be taking up space in landfills were put toward a useful purpose. Untold millions of gallons of water, harmful pesticides and fertilizer would no longer be needed to maintain the grass for athletic fields. In addition, the rubber from the tires added a significant cushion that was absent from the much less forgiving "AstroTurf", preventing serious injuries like broken bones and concussions. Crumb rubber is widely used in park playgrounds and soccer fields, among other places.

But, much like other innovations that were made to solve existing problems but ultimately created a whole new set of problems, crumb rubber may not be the miracle product it was designed to be.

It turns out that crumb rubber contains substances that aren't exactly good for us to be around, among them benzene, mercury, arsenic, carbon black and lead.  According to this article by NBC news, there might be serious cause for concern. 

One of the first people to call for a re-examination of the safety of crumb rubber is a soccer coach who has been compiling a database of soccer goalies contracting blood cancers. Soccer goalies regularly come into very intimate contact with the tire pellets kicked up from the crumb rubber. These pellets get into their cuts and scrapes and, even more worrisome, into their mouths.

Concerns about the safety of crumb rubber are starting to escalate. Studies have found that crumb rubber fields emit gases that can be inhaled, especially when they heat up. They can become 10-15 times hotter than the ambient temperature, increasing the chances that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and chemicals can leach into the air. Now, picture a field of athletes, exerting themselves and taking in large amounts of these chemicals into their lungs with every breath they take. This scares me.

While studies have not shown any conclusive dangers, according to Dr. Joel Forman, associate professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at New York's Mt. Sinai Hospital, in all these studies, data gaps make it difficult to draw firm conclusions.

"None of [these 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 subclinical effects, long-term effects, the developing brain and developing kids."

So, we are exposing our children to potentially very harmful substances. I can't help but think about days gone by in which asbestos and lead-based paint were a part of everyday life, and all the people who were irreparably harmed.

Fortunately, there are those who are starting to pay attention. The New York City Parks Department stopped installing crumb rubber turf in 2008, followed in 2009 by the Los Angeles Unified School District. But, what about all the crumb rubber turf that is already installed and being used every day?

There's a very small but growing groundswell of people who are calling attention to the situation. 

According to the Washington Post:

"The turf, whether toxic or not, is also drawing attention as 'the next battlefield for workplace gender discrimination'. FIFA plans to use the turf, rather than natural grass, for the women's World Cup next summer in Canada, a decision that prompted a lawyer representing Abby Wambach and other stars to file a lawsuit in the human rights tribunal of Ontario. The issue gained traction when Sydney Leroux tweeted a photo of her legs after a game - and it was immediately shared by Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and others."

This is @DrinkBODYARMOR athlete @sydneyleroux after playing on turf! 
I've never been one for running around and shouting dire warnings about the sky falling, and I don't have any definitive answers. But, because the consequences have the potential of being so serious and widespread, I think that this matter needs to be given serious and immediate attention. At the very least, we need to spread the word so that people can make informed decisions about the environments they place themselves and their children in. 

Pass on this blogpost, or the linked articles, to your friends and family. Let's get a conversation going. We just might be preventing another health catastrophe.

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