Is artificial turf giving athletes cancer?

Possible link? There is concern among US families that these chemicals are to blame for the cancer diagnosis of scores of young players, and in particular goalkeepers. Photo / Getty Images.
Possible link? There is concern among US families that these chemicals are to blame for the cancer diagnosis of scores of young players, and in particular goalkeepers. Photo / Getty Images.

It looks beautiful in winter and never needs mowing, but some people are worried that artificial turf is putting young athletes at risk for cancer.

Fears have been raised that rubber substances made from old tires used in 3G surfaces contain toxic chemicals including mercury, lead, benzene and arsenic.

There is concern among American families that these chemicals are to blame for the cancer diagnosis among scores of young players, and in particular goalkeepers who dive around on the pitches.

The makers of artificial turf strongly deny any such risk.

The surface, known as crumb rubber turf, is used on thousands of parks, schools and professional pitches across the country. It is made from fake nylon grass and ground up tires.

Grieving mother June Leahy, whose University of Miami goalkeeper daughter Austen Everett died of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma at the age of 25 in 2012, said: 'I have no doubt Austen's illness was linked to her love for football.

'It's horrific to think the sport she loved could have killed her.

University of Washington coach Amy Griffin, 50, a former player with the US national team, has been researching the alleged cancer risk.

She claims to have found more than 166 cases of footballers - 61 per cent of whom were goalkeepers - developing cancer and is convinced their illnesses are linked to a substance called crumb rubber infill.

Typically made from crushed tires, it is spread across artificial turf to improve the natural bounce of the ball.

The gravel-sized black pellets also protect synthetic grass from wear and tear and allow it to soak up water more effectively.

However, studies have found a mixture of deadly chemicals in old tires, including mercury, lead, benzene, arsenic and other carcinogens.

It's feared the pellets may be accidentally swallowed, or become lodged in arm or leg wounds when players make contact with the turf.

The gap in scientific understanding is the reason the state of California is currently doing its third study into synthetic turf fields.

Its latest multi-million pound research project hopes to provide some definitive answers by June 2018.

A spokesman for FIFA said its medical assessment and research center had already probed health fears linked to synthetic pitches.

He added: 'At that time, the conclusion was clear - the available body of scientific research on this issue did not substantiate the assumption that cancer resulting from exposure to crumb rubber infill could potentially occur.'

Ms.Griffin is convinced the 'little black dots' that 'get everywhere' are making players ill.

She is demanding more studies to be done on the toxicity of crumb rubber.

Research shows that crumb-rubber pellets, made of recycled tires, can contain toxic chemicals, metals and carcinogens, but not necessarily at levels that threaten human health

'I've coached for 26 or 27 years,' she said. 'In my first 15 years, I never heard anything about this. All of a sudden it seems to be a stream of kids.'

Artificial turf producers in the US have consistently denied their products present a cancer risk.

They say more than 50 studies have been conducted into the health effects of crumb rubber and none has directly linked its exposure to cancer.

The last time the Environmental Protection Agency studied crumb rubber in 2009, but it only looked at four pitches.

This year, a follow-up study with other federal agencies will evaluate existing research and test different kinds of tire crumb. It will involve reaching out to the public, including athletes and parents.

The majority of the athletes on Griffin's list have been diagnosed with lymphoma, and the next most frequent type of cancer they've reported is leukemia.

While the athletes range in age, she says most of them were born in the late-1980s to mid-1990s and were active around the time that turf fields became more common.

Astroturf was developed by US biotech firm Monsanto Company in the 1960s.

First called 'ChemGrass', it was later named Astroturf after it was installed in Houston's Astrodome in 1966.

Monsanto, which also made Agent Orange, a biological agent used in the Vietnam war, used sand in its turf instead of rubber.

A new generation of softer turf then emerged, which was made with rubber infill, and designed to give the surface more 'bounce' and help reduce injuries.

-DAILY MAIL

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