By Dr. Louis Rumao:
Crumb rubber is the material derived by reducing scrap tyres or other rubber articles into uniform granules after removal of reinforcing materials, such as steel & fiber, and inert contaminants, such as dust, glass and rock.
Artificial (or synthetic) turf fields are now widely used in the United States, from high schools to parks and multi-million-dollar athletic complexes. These are made of multiple layers, with a base of drainage material such as stones, followed by a pad of rubber, topped off by a carpet of nylon grass blades, which is filled in with crumb rubber. It is estimated that each turf field contains crumb rubber from about 40,000 tyres. Crumb rubber particles add desired cushioning, helping to reduce injuries, not to mention a good end-use for discarded tyres. Schools prefer this artificial turf to grass turf because it is less costly to install and maintain. Grass turf costs about $25,000 in annual maintenance, while artificial turf costs about $10,000, and can withstand heavy use year-round.
Today, according to figures from the Synthetic Turf Council, more than 11,000 synthetic turf sports fields are in use in the US. Most of them are crumb rubber. Crumb rubber infill is also used in children’s playgrounds across the country. Not only have turf fields diverted millions of tyres from landfills, but they don’t require fertilizer or pesticides, and can save municipalities hundreds of thousands of gallons of water each year.
Crumb rubber is an “environmental success story,” according to Dan Zielinski, spokesperson for the Rubber Manufacturers Association.
Health concerns cropping up?
No research has linked crumb or shredded rubber to cancer, and the turf industry says dozens of studies have shown the surface poses no health risk. However, anxiety about crumb rubber spiked after a 2014 NBC TV investigation found that two young female soccer goalkeepers, who had played on artificial turf fields, and been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. The University of Washington soccer coach Amy Griffin keeps a list of athletes who played on crumb rubber turf and have been diagnosed with various forms of cancer. She now has 63 names on her list, most of them soccer goalies.
Parents and players complain that the tiny black rubber crumbs get everywhere. In players’ uniforms, in their hair, in their cleats. For goalkeepers whose bodies are in constant contact with the turf, it can be far worse. In practices and games, they make hundreds of dives, and each plunge sends a black cloud of crumb pellets into the air. The granules get into their cuts and scrapes, and into their mouths. The fear is that the chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic or otherwise hazardous, could somehow be ingested — that is, a player or child would swallow a bit of the stuff, and this material could, say, give them cancer or some other disorder. Obviously, you’d have to eat a whole lot of crumb rubber to encounter this sort of risk. “The quantity you’d have to ingest is impractical,” says Anthony Dicicco, a Director of Business Development at Astroturf, large artificial turf supplier. “You’d have far bigger issues before you got to that situation,” he claims.
One of the problems with researching the potential health hazards of crumb rubber fields is the sheer variety of materials and types of tyres used in the product. Although tyre ingredients may contain benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heavy metals, Darren Gill, Vice President of marketing for FieldTurf, a prominent turf company, says that the manufacturing process ensures that their product is safe. “If you look at the ingredients that go into a tyre, some people take those ingredients and turn them into health concerns,” Gill says. “But after the vulcanization process, those ingredients are either inert or encapsulated.”
Dr. Laura Green, an MIT-educated toxicologist and independent consultant who recently worked for the turf industry, has said that the process used to manufacture tyres ensures that chemicals and carcinogens remain trapped inside. “There’s zero reason to be concerned that playing on synthetic turf will put your child at risk for cancer,” she says. “It’s simply not true.”
But some Studies have found that crumb rubber fields emit gases that can be inhaled. Turf fields can become very hot — 5 to 10 degrees hotter than the ambient temperature — increasing the chances that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and chemicals can “off-gas,” or leach into the air. While critics and supporters of crumb rubber turf don’t agree on whether the surface poses a hazard, all sides want Federal regulators to take a clear public position. Washington lawmakers are asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to weigh in on whether crumb rubber used in artificial turf fields in thousands of schools, parks and stadiums is safe for young athletes — citing a series of media stories. Some group have been trying to advance legislation that would require warning signs to be posted around artificial turf fields.
More lawsuits in the future?
It is clear that questions about safety of crumb rubber in artificial turf remain unanswered. However, law firms, sensing a profitable issue, are clamoring to speak with anyone, including parents of young children and teens, who are suspicious about the link between turf exposure and a loved one’s cancer diagnosis. Potential lawsuits could be in the works on behalf of individuals who have been regularly exposed to artificial turf (such as on a soccer field or playground) and have been diagnosed with health issues, especially cancer, promising big payouts for medical expenses and other “damages”. Three of the country’s biggest manufacturers of artificial turf — Field Turf, AstroTurf LLC and Beaulieu Group – were sued and have already agreed to reduce the amount of hazardous substances in their artificial turfs. This came after the California Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit alleging that the companies failed to warn the public about health risks from their artificial turf products. These lawsuits did not provide compensation to those allegedly injured as a result of exposure to synthetic turf. But do not expect lawyers to waste a potential opportunity to profit from a health scare, especially one that involves children!
The litigious background
America is a litigious society! There are nearly 1.4 million lawyers — one lawyer for every 280 citizens, and more than 6 lawsuits are filed each year per 100 citizens. Of special concern to companies, in 2014 more than 58,000 personal injury / product liability lawsuits were filed in the US District Courts.
One of the main reasons that this many lawyers are kept busy is because of the contingency fee arrangement where a lawyer gets paid only when the client wins damages. This encourages plaintiffs to file, and lawyers to sue “deep pockets” –- large companies, hospitals, doctors, et al. The beauty of the setup, from lawyers’ perspective, is the trial by jury where big companies are portrayed as profit-hungry entities causing hurt to innocent victims. Often companies settle out-of-the-court avoiding a jury trial where sympathy for a “victim” produces large compensatory and punitive damage amount, enriching the lawyer with 25% – 50% of the settlement. Billion-dollar verdicts and settlements have become norms in class-action cases where numerous alleged victims band together.
Consider one of the many notorious cases where a 79-year old lady bought a 49-cent cup of coffee at a McDonalds’ drive-through window and placed it between her knees. When she tried to remove the lid to add cream and sugar, she spilled the coffee in her lap and suffered burns in her groin area. She demanded $20,000 from McDonalds, who offered her $800. So, she got a lawyer and sued McDonalds asking for $90,000, accusing McDonald’s of “gross negligence” in selling very hot coffee that was “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured”. Upon trial, jury awarded $2.86 million to the plaintiff — $160,000 to cover medical expenses and compensatory damages and $2.7 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the final verdict to $640,000, and the parties settled for a confidential amount before an appeal was decided.
The cases of asbestos liability are well-known. Beginning in the 1970’s, lawsuits against companies that exposed their workers to mineral asbestos flooded the US court system, and the number of claims grew at a rapid pace. By 2002, some 730,000 people had filed asbestos-related lawsuits against companies that had exposed their workforce to asbestos, causing lung cancer. The result was establishment of a trust fund of nearly $50 billion in compensation for plaintiffs or family members, leading to bankruptcies and near-bankruptcies of many asbestos-related companies. These lawsuits are handled on a contingency fee arrangement.
Another example is of silicone breast implants, first introduced in 1962. During the 1980’s, the popularity of silicone breast implants surged, but so did accounts of their supposed risks. Many women claimed there was a link between ruptured silicone gel implants and a greater risk of immunological disorders. While no studies established a firm connection, 12,359 individual lawsuits had been filed against Dow Corning by the end of 1993, forcing it into bankruptcy. Ultimately, a $3.4-billion trust fund was set up to compensate the alleged victims. Ironically, in 2006, after reviewing research and finding no connection between silicone implants and health risks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) again approved the sale of certain silicone breast implants.