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Tales from the Motherhood: Turf war – Synthetic turf fields’ possible link to cancer causing a stir

Published: Friday, Oct. 17, 2014 3:56 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Oct. 17, 2014 11:09 p.m. CDT

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Oh man. It seems that for several years, my kids have routinely played soccer on synthetic turf fields, the likes of which some now link to cancer. Ugh. Synthetic turf, infilled with that granular synthetic “dirt” made from shredded recycled tires, which sheds little black crumbs that drive me batty because they’re nearly impossible to eradicate from car mats, cleats and even the kids’ hair, is now being touted by a whole host of news outlets as bad news.

Awesome.

The news culminated in an NBC report aired last week that featured Amy Griffin, a coach of the University of Washington women’s soccer team, who said she became alarmed by a comment made by a Seattle nurse during one of her hospital visits with a young goalie five years ago.

“Don’t tell me you guys are goalkeepers,” the nurse said according to the report. “You’re the fourth goalkeeper I’ve hooked up this week.”

According to the report, Griffin then realized that she knew of several soccer players who’d been diagnosed with rare cancers (lymphoma and leukemia dominate the list), so she came forward with her concern that those little black bits might be the culprit.

The news spread and her anecdotal list of cases grew, and now includes dozens of current and former American soccer players, many of whom are goalkeepers, who spend way more time diving on the ground and connecting with those suspicious black bits than do their teammates.

“Tires are so full of toxic chemicals they have to be disposed of in a special landfill,” said Doug Wood, a founder of Grassroots Environmental Education in New York, when he was interviewed by News 12 Long Island in 2007. “So why would you grind them up and put them on a field where kids are going to play?”

 In their investigation, NBC reported that the international agency for research on cancer stated that at least four carcinogenic chemicals are typically present in recycled tires.

And now Batavians are set to vote, Nov. 4, on a pricey bond measure that would provide for many capital improvements to the district’s schools, including the possible installation of synthetic turf at the high school’s stadium and an adjacent practice field. Proponents say that such fields drain quickly, making competition cancellations due to heavy rain less likely, but I can’t get past the safety question.

And the potential cancer risk isn’t the only health concern turf inspires.

According to a recent CBS report, American soccer phenom Abby Wambach contends that  artificial turf’s abrasive nature increases player injuries.

Two weeks ago, CBS also reported that a lawyer representing several of the biggest playmakers in women’s soccer announced that they had filed a lawsuit at the human rights tribunal of Ontario, seeking to force FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association to install natural grass for the Women’s World Cup, slated to happen next year in Canada. No major men’s soccer tournament has ever been played on artificial turf, according to the report.

“About a year ago when we heard definitively that they were gonna be playing on actual artificial surface, I kinda came out pretty vocally and said this is an outrage, this is a disgrace,” Wambach told CBS. “The game changes, the ball rolls faster, and it’s less fun as an athlete. It should be grass stains, not blood.”

My daughter’s soccer coach, Alex Nowak, agrees. He says that when his oldest daughter competed on artificial turf at indoor facilities, he spent way more time cleaning nasty abrasions and mopping up blood than coaching soccer.

And now we’re talking a possible link to cancer?

Geneva High School Athletic Director Jim Kafer said during an interview on Friday morning that without checking his records he can’t say for sure whether his turf, installed three years ago, is derived from recycled tires. He does recall, however, that concerns about health, including respiratory concerns, were carefully considered. Kafer says that after much deliberation, “We were, and are, very confident that the turf is safe.”  

According to NBC, several school districts around the country have canceled its orders for synthetic turf, including Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, Washington. The school scrapped their plans to use crumb rubber turf after learning about the recent NBC investigation. According to the report, Burien isn’t certain a link to cancer exists, but isn’t taking any chances, and nor should we.

In two weeks, Batavians can vote on the school district’s bond question.

Holly hopes to play high school soccer next year, but I’m putting my foot down if it’s to be played on this stuff. No way, no how.

Did synthetic turf cause cancer in coach Griffin’s admittedly anecdotal survey? NBC reports that the Synthetic Turf Council said in a statement, “There is no research directly linking crumb rubber exposure to cancer.”

It may be never be proven, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Isolating the myriad variables is the challenge facing researchers going forward, but what do we do today? We parents have plenty of things over which to lose sleep – but turf doesn’t have to be one of them. Err on the side of caution and find a less questionable material, Batavia. Or, you know, plant some grass. And for pity’s sake, please don’t spray it with weed killer.
• Jennifer DuBose lives in Batavia with her husband, Todd, and their two children, Noah and Holly. Contact her at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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