Health study on rubber turf comes under heavy scrutiny

Washington State Department of Health officials are calling turf fields “safe” despite conducting what some say is a flawed study.

Parents of Bainbridge athletes have long been concerned about the chemicals present in the recycled tire crumb infill used on artificial turf fields. The artificial turf field at Bainbridge High School is used throughout the year by multiple teams.

And with the soccer and lacrosse seasons starting, players are once again taking to the field.

In a recent report, the Washington State Department of Health stated that it had not found elevated rates of cancer in the soccer players identified by University of Washington Soccer Coach Amy Griffin.

The new study may help allay some fears. The investigation by the Department of Health reportedly found less cancer among soccer players than would be expected in the general population.

And, according to the department, this finding “does not suggest that artificial turf presents a significant public health risk.”

The investigation came after the University of Washington’s associate head coach for women’s soccer, Griffin, became concerned with the number of soccer players she had encountered who developed some form of cancer.

To Griffin, it seemed an inordinate number of goalkeepers had developed or previously been diagnosed with at least one form of cancer. By 2016, Griffin had compiled a list of some 53 current or former Washington residents who had played soccer on artificial turf fields and had been diagnosed with cancer.

The new study did not focus specifically on the recycled tire rubber used as infill on artificial turf fields, but instead examined the soccer players from the list provided by Griffin.

Crumb rubber itself has been a health concern after questions were raised on the presence of carcinogens in the car tires used to produce the crumb. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting a study on crumb rubber in order to determine whether those who play on artificial turf fields risk exposure to the cancer-causing chemicals.

The data from the Washington state investigation is likely incomplete, critics maintain, due to the fact that it only took into account the cancer rates among the soccer players from the list provided by Griffin. The Department of Health did not seek out other soccer players in Washington who had been diagnosed with cancer, and the agency also made estimates for the total number of soccer players in Washington for the years observed.

Griffin was very surprised to see that the list she provided constituted all of the investigation’s data on soccer players with cancer.

“The numbers I gave them were from the people that had contacted me or that I had bumped into that had cancer and played soccer,” Griffin said.

“My samples were extremely small and everyone knows it was anecdotal; there was nothing scientific about it.”

Griffin attended a recent announcement event for the results of the study held by the Department of Health, accompanied by family members of some of the players from her list.

“When I realized that this is what they based their entire study on, I became very uncomfortable,” Griffin said.

“It was really disheartening.

“I think what is a little concerning for most people is the assumption that I have come across every player in the state of Washington that has played soccer and had cancer,” said the coach.

June Leahy, the mother of Austen Everett, one of the players from Griffin’s list, was in attendance at the announcement. Leahy’s daughter was a goalkeeper for the University of Miami when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“They basically did nothing,” Leahy said.

“It was unbelievable to me that they felt that, in good conscience, they could get up there and tell the public, ‘It’s not a problem, it’s safe, go put your kids on it.’ In my opinion, the health department did nothing.”

Leahy saw the investigation as being indicative of the department’s inability to protect its own citizens.

Leahy’s daughter passed away in 2012 and she has no doubt that crumb rubber is to blame.

“This department exists to protect its citizens from dangerous materials, just as they did with asbestos and tobacco,” Leahy said.

“For them to be so non-committed as to not do any field work of their own, to not reach out to kids with cancer themselves — there was no effort made,” Leahy said.

Leahy also serves as the executive director of the Austen Everett Foundation, a foundation which seeks to connect young cancer patients with their favorite sports teams and athletes.

In the report, the Department of Health did admit to the numerous limitations of their investigation.

The report states, “The list from the coach likely did not include all soccer players ages 6 to 24 years old who developed cancer during 2002-2015. The coach primarily works with skilled female goalies, which might have resulted in the relatively high percentages of females, select and premier players, and goalkeepers on her list. The coach might also be most familiar with cancer cases among soccer players in King County due to her working primarily in that county. Other soccer players with cancer were likely missed.”

The report later deems these limitations to not be substantial enough to affect the conclusion that the number of cancers reported to the department does not indicate that soccer players are at higher risk for cancer than other Washington residents of the same ages.

“’Not appearing to cause cancer’ is not the same thing as ‘entirely safe,’” noted Lauren Jenks, director of the Office of Environmental Public Health Sciences.

The Department of Health recommends athletes who play on artificial turf fields clean any cuts or abrasions sustained on the field, shower after play and change out of athletic gear to avoid tracking the crumb rubber into their homes.

Bainbridge High School is home to one artificial turf field with crumb rubber infill.

Tamela Van Winkle, the Bainbridge district’s director of capital projects, said she had not yet read the report. But she noted the field at BHS is currently being used “morning, noon and night.” Van Winkle said the discussion about crumb rubber will likely come up in the future when the time comes to replace the current field.

“These fields have a life and it will need to be replaced. And so what that looks like will be up for conversation,” Van Winkle said.

Noting the ubiquity of the rubber infill, Van Winkle said, “I’m quite confident that the dialogue will continue.

“Just knowing the industry as I do, these fields are everywhere. So it will certainly be something that will continue to be studied,” she said.

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