Toxic Turf? UW coach draws connection between turf and cancer

Toxic Turf? UW coach draws connection between turf and cancer »Play Video
Pellets of crumb rubber are shown here in artificial turf.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- University of Washington assistant soccer coach Amy Griffin sees a troubling connection between the turf and cancer among soccer players.

Griffin told KATU's Seattle sister station KOMO that 13 players from the state of Washington were all diagnosed with rare types of cancer. Of those 13, 11 were goalkeepers.

Griffin can't say why goalkeepers are getting cancer but she wonders if it could be caused by the crumb rubber, a kind of filler in turf fields. Crumb rubber is made from recycled tires and often contains chemicals ruled too toxic to burn in some states.

Crumb rubber is used in soccer fields all over the country. The turf is especially popular in the Northwest because the tires get recycled and the reliable surface can stand up to soggy weather.

Griffin pointed out that goalies spend a lot of time on the ground diving for balls, blocking shots and sometimes ingesting the small rubber pellets.

"Everyone says it's just a coincidence and kind of walks away, but the ratio of goalkeepers to field players is 15 to 1, 16 to 2, and I know plenty of goalkeepers that have cancers and I don't know many field players," Griffin said, UW Asst. Women's Soccer Coach.

Griffin's first brush with this unproven connection came during a visit to former UW goalie Jorden Alerding who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma during her freshman year of college. Doctors discovered a large, deadly tumor.

"I lived in the stuff," Alerding said. "Four to five times a week I was on it for hours bleeding, sweating, everything ... looking back now I wonder, could that have been the cause?"

So is prolonged exposure to crumb rubber making people sick?

The Synthetic Turf Council said no.

Some in the Portland-metro area, where crumb rubber-filled fields have popped up in recent years, aren't so convinced either.

Portland Parks and Recreation (PP&R), which maintains the turf on Rob Strasser Memorial Field at Delta Park, didn't know of any crumb rubber concerns related to its fields.

"Safety is our top priority, and there have been no complaints that we know of; nor are there any known human health concerns regarding artificial turf fields on Portland Parks & Recreation property," Mark Ross told KATU, Portland Parks and Recreation spokesman.

However, Ross admits there were concerns about lead in the turf fields at Rob Strasser Memorial Field and the field at Mary Rieke School. Rieke Field is on Portland Public Schools' (PPS) property but is maintained by Portland Parks & Recreation. Ross said the fields were installed prior to 2000 and were fabricated with turf made with some lead content, which he said was common for older generations of turf fields.

In 2008, the city of Portland and PPS decided to limit access to Rieke Field because of the presence of lead in some artificial turf fields and potential exposure to children who play on those fields. In a press release posted by the district, dated September 2008, Rieke Field closed to children under the age of 11 because of concerns regarding lead exposure from the artificial turf.

That same year, Oregon's public health division released recommendations around lead and artificial turf fields. According to the release, artificial turf containing up to 0.5 percent lead (based on bulk tested acid digested samples) that is in good condition can be considered safe for continued use.

KATU contacted the state's public health division Tuesday. The agency provided some information but could not provide any information about the connection between crumb rubber and any health risks.

On Tuesday, Oregon Public Health Division spokesman Jonathan Modie said the agency still stands by the recommendations it released in 2008.

At the request of the school board, Portland Parks and Recreation conducted comprehensive lead testing in collaboration with PPS as well as the health departments of both the state of Oregon and Multnomah County.

"All tests showed there was minimal concern for lead exposure to all age groups, children included," Ross continued in his email. "All other artificial turf fields in the PPR system are newer and are lead-free."

Ross said the Strasser field was replaced with lead-free turf in about 2009.

On Tuesday, PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles said Rieke Field was not made with crumb rubber.

Miles added that PPS maintains five turf fields with a mixture of Nike Grind, sand, and crumb rubber. Nike Grind is a material made when the shoe-giant takes worn out athletic shoes and grinds them down. That material is then used to makes sports surfaces including courts, turf fields, tracks and more.

Miles said Nike Grind accounts for roughly 80 percent of the mixture in PPS turf fields.

KATU also found a letter written by Commissioner Nick Fish, dated March 2009, addressing the comparisons between synthetic turf and natural grass fields as well as possible health risks associated with turf in Portland. In the letter, Fish says ambient rubber, which is made of ground-up recycled tires and contains some metals, s not used within the Portland Parks system.

"The infill used at Delta Park's Strasser field is made of recycled tires that have been broken down using a special cryogenic freezing process," Fish's letter states. "This process eliminates heavy metals."

The On Your Side Investigators found several districts around the area installed crumb rubber-filled fields, including Portland Public Schools and the Beaverton School District.

In the Beaverton School District, Westridge High School and Southridge High School fields were made with crumb rubber. The company that installed the fields, FieldTurf, sent the On Your Side Investigators an email Tuesday countering Griffin's claims.

"Synthetic turf is, and has always been safe," said Darren Gill, Vice President of FieldTurf Global Marketing. "There is no legitimate scientific or medical evidence that synthetic turf poses a human health or environmental risk."

However, a 2009 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study doesn't entirely rule out a connection since they describe its own study "limited."

According to the study, "...concentrations of components monitored in this study were below levels of concern; however, given the very limited nature of this study (i.e., limited number of components monitored, samples sites, and samples taken at each site) and the wide diversity of tire crumb material, it is not possible to reach any more comprehensive conclusions without the consideration of additional data," according to the study.

Griffin said, "I would love for it to be disproven or for someone to grab me by the throat and say, 'These are the facts. This is why it could never be this. This is just happenstance.' That would be great."

The On Your Side Investigators also contacted Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) for comment but the university declined to comment. A spokeswoman referred KATU to an epidemiologist at the Knight Cancer Institute, which KATU attempted to reach, but calls were not immediately returned.