LAS VEGAS — Five artificial turf fields are on tap to be replaced in the Clark County School District in Nevada in the wake of an investigation that exposed dangerous conditions, lack of safety testing and lack of maintenance at high school football fields across Las Vegas.
Now, a potential health risk with how artificial fields are made is taking center field.
"As a keeper or a goalie, he's constantly in it," said Channel Beller, whose son Jay practically grew up on a soccer field.
"As a goalie, he was on the turf all the time," Beller said. "Especially during practice, it's dive, dive, dive, dive, dive, dive for hours, right?"
Jay is being exposed to something he can't help breathing in and swallowing.
"It's everywhere. It's all over me," Jay said. "After every game and every practice, I'd have to wash off all of it out of my scabs and stuff. It would burn pretty bad."
After one game, they learned just how invasive the stuff could be.
"I dove for a ball and got a lot of the black stuff in my eyes, and the next couple days, I had like this blurry vision in one of my eyes," Jay said.
"Two days later, we pull it out. So now knowing what I know," Jay's mom says, "that sat in a mucous membrane for two days!"
Little black rubber pellets are the infill that helps create a cushion in artificial turf. It's called crumb rubber, and it's made from recycled tires chopped up into tiny bits.
"Disgusting," Beller said.
And disturbing, says former U.S. Women's National Team goalie Amy Griffin, who is now the head coach at the University of Washington.
"I don't think they are testing it in a way — how we live in it," Griffin said.
She stumbled upon a troubling pattern during a hospital visit with a cancer patient who was also a goalie.
"The nurse walked by. She just overheard our conversations about being a crazy goalkeeper," Griffin explained. "(The nurse) said, 'Wait a second! Are you a goalkeeper too? You're like the fifth goalkeeper I've hooked up to chemo this week.' "
That was in 2009. Griffin soon learned about more athletes who played on artificial turf fields and had been diagnosed with cancer. Oddly, a lot of them were goalkeepers. So she started a list.
"That list was at 15; then it went pretty quickly to 35," Griffin said.
Her list became the focus of an ESPN investigation in 2014.
"We, for the most part, operate on the principle that a chemical is innocent until proven guilty," Jeff Ruch, an attorney with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in the ESPN story. "And only if it produces a body count is there then any sort of regulatory response."
That initiated a federal, multi-agency research effort in 2016, which is still ongoing today.
Led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they're looking at possible risks associated with turf fields and rubberized playground surfaces.
The first concern is easy to see — gasoline and oil, antifreeze, brake fluid and who knows what else. You'd never let your kids play in a puddle of this toxic soup.
But some of those chemicals could essentially roll from the roadways and parking lots onto athletic fields and playgrounds as it takes thousands of used tires to infill a field.
But the industry says what's on the tires is not a problem.
"Before they go into fields, they're broken up and they're cleaned," said Dan Bond with the Synthetic Turf Council.
According to analysis from the Yale School of Public Health, the very components of tires could be a health risk.
Studies reveal there are more than 300 chemicals in crumb rubber — and 52 are classified as carcinogens.
"This was a startling revelation," Beller said. "We wouldn't allow our children to go play on a pile of tires, so why would we allow them to play on a field of chopped up tires?"
The Synthetic Turf Council says carcinogens are everywhere.
"In the iPhone or cellphone you use," Bond said. "Or if you play on a natural grass field, there's arsenic and lead and other carcinogens that have been identified."
The feds just released more than 800 pages of material. While they still can't say if there's a link between crumb rubber and cancer (see the EPA's statement below), Griffin's list keeps getting longer.
"Now the list is at 264," Griffin said. "In that list, the thing that's most concerning to me is, 205 of those are soccer players and 121 of those are goalkeepers. So that's 59% of people on my list."
The field of research is divided.
"I'm a parent of two little beautiful children that I have absolutely no problem playing on synthetic turf," Bond said.
The turf industry maintains crumb rubber is safe. According to the Synthetic Turf Council, recycled tires are washed and the dangerous chemicals are encased in the rubber. They cite several studies that conclude that recycled rubber infill poses a negligible risk.
One in particular? A Washington State Department of Health report responding directly to Griffin's list. It concludes there are fewer cases of cancer among soccer players than expected, and it encourages kids to keep on kicking.
Another study concludes scientific evidence "does not support the hypothesis" of a cancer risk.
On the flip side, a 2017 study by Dutch scientists tested how water leached through crumb rubber would impact the behavior of zebrafish. Apparently, the water was so toxic, all the fish embryos died within five days.
And in May of this year, a South Korean study claims, "Cancer risk is approximately ten times higher in poured rubber playgrounds than in uncovered soil playgrounds."
"We should have safe places for our children to play," Beller said. "We shouldn't have to make that choice."
CCSD provided the following statement when KTNV asked if the district was considering alternatives to crumb rubber on the new football fields:
The Clark County School District is using the field at Boulder City High School as the basis of design on upcoming bids for artificial turf projects. That design utilizes an organic infill consisting of a mixture of cork and sand. Any materials submitted as part of bids will be reviewed by the appropriate design professional retained by CCSD for the project.
Additionally, CCSD’s decision to move away from crumb rubber infill was solely a response to the heat generated by this type of infill. Organic infills have proven to create a much cooler playing surface.
KTNV reached out to the EPA for a statement, with the following questions, regarding progress with the multi-agency federal research effort into risk associated with crumb rubber infill.
The following was provided by an EPA spokesperson:
The Synthetic Turf Field Recycled Tire Crumb Rubber Research Under the Federal Research Action Plan (FRAP) Final Report: Part 1 - Tire Crumb Characterization has been released. It summarizes the first part of the research study that was conducted under the FRAP. The second part, Exposure Characterization, which will include information from a biomonitoring study that CDC/ATSDR is conducting, will be released later. For more information about the study and timeline, see our website on the Federal Research on Recycled Tire Crumb Used on Playing Fields at epa.gov.
KTNV: When will Part 2 be available? What will Part 2 cover?
Part 2, to be released at a later date, will attempt to characterize potential human exposures to the chemicals found in the crumb rubber material during use on synthetic turf fields. The Part 2 exposure characterization will include results (not currently available) from a biomonitoring study being conducted by CDC/ATSDR. The anticipated release date for Part 2 is not known at this time.
KTNV: Why are these reports not including a risk assessment?
In 2016, the EPA recognized that without exposure there is no risk and, in an attempt to develop a timely response to ongoing concerns identified gaps in its knowledge about the potential exposures to the chemicals contained in tire crumb rubber. Following this, EPA, ATSDR, and CPSC launched a coordinated federal effort to fill important data gaps particularly with respect to understanding potential exposures to chemicals in tire crumb rubber. This research will inform future risks assessments.
KTNV: When will a risk assessment be available?
Neither Part 1 nor Part 2 of the synthetic turf field study, separately or combined, will constitute an assessment of the risks associated with playing on synthetic turf fields with recycled tire crumb rubber infill.
CPSC will continue its work on playgrounds by conducting a risk assessment of children's exposure to playground surfaces made of tire rubber. This work will use the CPSC survey as well as data from EPA's FRAP Part 1 (characterization of the chemicals and materials in tire rubber crumb), released July 25, and CDC's (ATSDR) FRAP Part 2 (characterization of potential exposures for those who use turf fields containing tire crumb) after it is released.