In response to mounting public concern over potential health risks associated with synthetic turf fields, Loudoun County officials will review the use of rubber infill on athletic fields and consider possible alternatives.
The matter was addressed at a June 4 Joint Board of Supervisors and School Board committee meeting, where Loudoun County Health Department Director David Goodfriend stressed the importance of ensuring that the turf fields at public schools are safe for the children who use them.
“I think it’s a very important discussion to have, whenever there’s a safety concern in the community, in my role both as the director of the health department and as the father of two girls who play on crumb-rubber artificial turf fields,” he said.
The discussion followed growing alarm among local parents about crumb rubber — the tiny, black rubber granules used to fill synthetic turf fields. Crumb rubber, made from car tires, has been shown to contain a wealth of potentially dangerous chemicals and carcinogens, according to an NBC investigation last year.
The NBC report, which stressed that no study has shown a definitive link between crumb rubber and any health problem, featured a soccer coach from Seattle who found that dozens of high school athletes — particularly soccer goalies — had developed cancer after exposure to the crumb rubber. The tiny pellets can easily become embedded in cuts or scrapes or be ingested through the nose and mouth during play, the investigation found.
Goodfriend told the school board that the report sparked significant concern across the country, including in the Washington region. Officials in Montgomery County, Md., subsequently voted to ban crumb rubber at the county’s schools and use plant-based infill — often made from coconut husk, cork and sand — as an alternative.
In Loudoun, parents recently launched a Change.org petition to urge their schools and county leaders to follow suit. As of Friday, the petition to ban the use of crumb rubber in Loudoun had received more than 900 signatures, with a goal of 1,000.
The school board voted in 2009 to begin installing turf fields at Loudoun schools. At the time, the artificial infill was determined to be a preferable alternative to natural grass because turf fields are easier to maintain, can be used in all weather and the rubber surface helped lower the prevalence of impact injuries for athletes, according to county staff. Ten turf fields using crumb-rubber infill are in use in the county, with five more under construction, staff said.
The Loudoun County Public School system responded to the rising public concern last month, stating that several studies have shown no cause for concern with synthetic fields.
“The health and safety aspects of synthetic turf have been reviewed by national and state organizations, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state agencies in California, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York,” the statement said. “The overwhelming weight of this research indicates the products used in our synthetic turf fields are safe. In the absence of further scientific evidence, LCPS will continue to rely on these sources when installing and maintaining its synthetic turf fields.”
At the committee meeting, Goodfriend echoed the fact that no study has conclusively shown a link between crumb rubber and cancer. But he added that there haven’t been many comprehensive studies.
“There are limitations to the studies,” he said. “Definitely, because this is recycled tire material, there are chemicals in there. But the general conclusion I’ve seen is that there’s no evidence that they pose a safety risk.”
But that doesn’t mean those chemicals are necessarily harmless, he added: “More work would be a benefit, to make sure they’re safe.”
Officials from the Loudoun County Health Department, the public school system and the county Department of Parks and Recreation will continue to review ongoing studies into the health implications of crumb rubber, and monitor decisions made in other jurisdictions across the country, Goodfriend told the committee. He has also contacted the Virginia Department of Health to see whether they had noticed any association between the use of artificial turf and cancer — “particularly for Fairfax County,” he said, noting that Fairfax has about 70 crumb-rubber fields in use. And he is waiting to learn what officials in the Seattle area have found in response to the NBC stories, he said.
School Board member Kevin Kuesters (Broad Run) asked Goodfriend if it was possible to determine quickly whether there are any clear negative health implications.
“Obviously, if we wait 30 or 40 years and then start to find out that this is an issue, that doesn’t help us now,” he said. “If we can simply look at an alternative, and the alternative is not cost-prohibitive, then the decision is almost made.”
Goodfriend replied that there is no way to quickly determine the potential risk, but said officials could review cancer registries and look for signs of increased cancer rates in jurisdictions that use crumb rubber.
Even in the absence of clear evidence of risk, county leaders could also opt to follow “the precautionary principle,” Goodfriend said: “If we’re not absolutely sure that something is safe, why take the risk?”