Could artificial turf be presenting athletes with a cancer risk?

Thanks to teams like the Seattle Sounders, the LA Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls, major league soccer is growing in popularity across the nation, which means, in many states, a need for new stadiums. But in some states, the weather doesn’t always permit a full open-air concept, meaning some stadiums must remain closed off from the elements, utilizing artificial turf instead of natural grass.

If you’ve been on or seen an artificial turf surface, you may have noticed what looks to be little black dots. In many cases, these are ground up recycled tires used to create a bouncier surface that is supposed to be safer for athletes. Or at least so we’re told.

Research conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests that ground rubber, also known as tire crumbs in the industry, could contain chemicals that could lead to certain cancers after repeated exposure to the particles.

The EPA study coincides with similar findings from Environment and Human Health, Inc., which noted that health concerns are already recognized within in the tire fabrication industry. The same chemicals, the EHHI noted, are still present in the tire crumbs, meaning athletes playing on artificial turf could be at risk of chemical exposure just as easily as a tire fabricator worker could.

Recently, an associate head coach for the women’s soccer team at the University of Washington came forward with a list of 38 American soccer players who had all been diagnosed with cancer. As was highlighted in an NBC News article, blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma dominated the list.

With MLS gaining popularity, the concern for athlete safety is increasing. Is constant exposure to potentially harmful chemicals putting professional athletes at risk of developing an occupational disease just like a tire fabricator could? It’s a difficult question to answer, especially because extensive research still has yet to be conducted and a confirmed risk has yet to be found.

Sources: NBC News, “How Safe Is the Artificial Turf Your Child Plays On?” Hannah Rappleye, Oct. 8, 2014

Environment and Human Health, Inc., “Artificial Turf: Exposures to Ground Up Rubber Tires – Athletic Fields, Playgrounds, Garden Mulch,” Accessed Oct. 14, 2014