Can Carcinogens in Artificial Turf Harm Athletes?

State toxicologist says fields are safe, despite growing concerns

Health experts disagree on the impact carcinogens found in artificial turf fields have on the athletes who play on them.

The debate hits close to home for 14-year-old Georgia Dombroski, who plays soccer on synthetic fields every week.

"I started playing soccer five years ago," Georgia said.

As a goal keeper, she lives for the big moments. But she also knows it comes with a price.

“If it’s a rough game, or even if you’re just down by one, you always feel depressed like you let the whole team down… even if you didn’t,” said Georgia.

But as she and her mom spend countless hours traveling to and from soccer fields around the state, one downside they’ve never considered: The field itself.

An NBC News investigation showed people raising concerns about crumb rubber—the little black pellets used as infill on turf fields. Most crumb rubber comes from ground up tires.

“Twenty to 30 percent of every tire is carbon black,” said Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health. “And carbon black is a carcinogen.”

In 2007, Alderman and her colleagues predicted the four carcinogens found in crumb rubber would affect players within 10 years.

“Eventually, it just became uncanny how many people in our area had blood-related cancer,” said Amy Griffin, an assistant women’s soccer coach at the University of Washington. “Leukemia and lymphoma were the two that became the most prevalent.”

Although scientists haven’t proven a connection between crumb rubber and cancer, that upward trend prompted Griffin to start a list of student-athletes diagnosed with cancer. While she admits her findings aren’t scientific, she can’t help but ask questions.

“Out of the 126 [athletes listed], 112 are soccer players and the rest are NFL football players, field hockey or lacrosse players,” said Griffin.

But if we know these fields contain carcinogens, why install them where children play?

Alderman believes there’s a bigger picture, dating back to the 1990s, when the government searched for ways to keep tires out of landfills. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. has one waste tire for every individual every year.

The EPA told the Troubleshooters that installing turf fields is a state and local decision. It also happens to be up to the states and towns to figure out how to properly dispose of or repurpose old tires.

But Connecticut Department of Public Health toxicologist Gary Ginsberg said the department does not endorse one type of field over another. He and his team conducted a study in 2010 to test how the chemicals found in crumb rubber affected the surrounding air quality.

“We studied five fields across Connecticut,” said Ginsberg. “We picked mid-day, summertime conditions.”

Conclusively, the studies show a very low risk on the outdoor fields and a slightly higher risk at indoor facilities. However, he added, it’s not enough to concern players or parents.

“We looked at all the carcinogens in these fields from an inhalation perspective and we don’t see an increased cancer risk,” said Ginsberg. “We specifically looked for that.”

What might warrant more research: The state’s study had players on the turf for one hour, on one day.

Ginsberg said his team used algorithms to match a more realistic scenario of a player training for three hours per day, six days per week.

“That one-hour measurement that we made was taken out through years of playing,” said Ginsberg.

The department’s study also did not factor in goalkeepers, which account for 81 of the 126 athletes on Griffin’s list.

“They are the most heavily exposed,” said Alderman. “Which is why we see the most cancers in the soccer goalies.”

Fourteen-year-old Georgia Dombroski knows firsthand just how often goalkeepers are exposed to crumb rubber.

“It gets in my cleats all the time,” said Georgia. “And my shin guards, in my mouth and in my hair.”

To help fix that, she covers as much of her body as she can while playing.

“I try my best not to get turf burn,” said Georgia. “It burns and gets cut open every time you fall on it.”

That's why experts like Alderman, who said we need to do more research, will stop at nothing until we can say we’ve covered all our bases.

“We don’t have the national institutes of health tracking it?” Alderman said incredulously. “Instead, we have an assistant coach out in Washington state being the receiver of all these cancers? Is that how we do things in this country?”

Until then, young athletes like Georgia don’t have much of a choice. If she wants to compete at the next level, she has to play wherever the game takes her.

“I would play until however long I could play,” she said. “I really like playing soccer.”

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