Sixty years after it opened, DeSales High School will finally hold its first home varsity football game on Aug. 19.
Its field of long-delayed dreams will be the product of new construction and old tires.
“It gives us an opportunity to expand physical education offerings and gives our alumni somewhere to call home,” DeSales President Doug Strothman said. “Our supporters and alumni don’t have to go on our website and figure out which public high school we’re playing at on Friday night. They know if it’s a home game, they’re coming back to their school.
But there’s a rub: the rubber.
Styrene butadiene, more commonly known as “crumb rubber,” is a granular material made from recycled tires that is poured over artificial grass to provide cushioning. It cuts the cost of maintaining athletic fields and ensures a playable surface that natural grass cannot guarantee. Yet a growing chorus of scientists, environmentalists, politicians and parents, concerned by the potential health hazards posed by the tiny black particles – in use on at least 16 Louisville-area fields – has blocked its installation in schools from Connecticut to California.
Definitive answers are few. Scientific studies to date have been limited in scope and, in some cases, have reached conflicting conclusions. Still, anecdotal evidence of a possible cancer link and the availability of alternative products has caused numerous communities to tread more carefully in the places their children play.
“I’m obviously concerned,” said St. Xavier High School boys soccer coach Andy Schulten, whose team plays its home games on a crumb rubber field. “But it’s sort of inconclusive.”
Last February, citing “a growing divide” and exercising “an abundance of caution,” Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet curtailed grants for crumb rubber playgrounds and athletic fields, limiting subsidies for use of the material to landscaping projects. Last month, the city of Hartford, Conn., adopted new zoning regulations prohibiting the use of artificial turf containing synthetic infill materials such as crumb rubber.
And last Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a joint effort to research the safety of crumb rubber as a “first step to providing parents with the answers they deserve,” pledging to deliver a status report by the end of the year.
In many cases, though, the salient questions are being posed after the fact. Julian Tackett, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, says more than 50 crumb rubber fields have already been installed at state high schools and that “most of them are in their second iteration.” Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the Albany Daily Star the belated scrutiny the fields are receiving represents “a classic example of leaping before you look.”
Louisville’s crumb rubber fields can be found primarily at private schools: Assumption, Kentucky Country Day, Mercy, Sacred Heart, Trinity and St. Xavier. Jerry Wyman, athletic director for Jefferson County Public Schools, said he was aware of only two at county public schools: the baseball infields at Eastern and Pleasure Ridge Park high schools. Recent installations in Southern Indiana include fields at Floyd Central, New Albany and Providence high schools.
The University of Louisville has five athletic fields that include a crumb rubber infill, for football, baseball, field hockey, lacrosse and in the Trager Center fieldhouse.
“This is my 10th year and this field has been in place for 10 years,” U of L baseball coach Dan McDonnell said. “I haven’t heard of any (problems) yet. … But it’s not something you want to look at 20 years from now and say, ‘We should have done something.’ ”
In the face of a scientific split, though, deciding what should be done entails making sense of a debate in which both sides are deeply entrenched and, says Tackett, “I don’t know that there’s anyone really neutral.”
The cancer concern
The issue has gained national traction largely as the result of a database kept by Amy Griffin, the associate head coach of the University of Washington’s women’s soccer team. As of Wednesday afternoon, Griffin said she has identified 214 cases of athletes who have competed on crumb rubber surfaces and were subsequently diagnosed with cancer, including former Morehead State midfielder McKenzie Hicks and more than 100 soccer goalkeepers. Of those 214 cases, Griffin said, 85 athletes were diagnosed with lymphoma, 44 with leukemia.
Though turf industry consultants dispute the scientific validity of Griffin’s records, her list has attracted considerable media coverage and found attentive ears in Washington. Following President Obama’s State of the Union plea to “make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” Sens. Richard Blumenthal. D-Conn., and Bill Nelson.D-Fla., asked the White House for a comprehensive federal study of crumb rubber, citing Griffin’s data.
Earlier, the House Energy and Commerce Committee sought answers to 10 specific questions concerning crumb rubber from the EPA only to receive a general statement saying studies “do not show an elevated health risk from playing on fields with synthetic turf containing tire crumb.” The agency cautioned, however, that existing studies have gaps and “do not comprehensively address the concerns about children’s health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”
Previously, the EPA had backpedaled on its 2009 study of crumb rubber that revealed only a “low level of concern,” about health risks, adding a disclaimer to the effect that those findings were “outdated.”
“I don’t want to say they’re going to try hard not to find anything,” Griffin said. “But it’s a huge problem if anything comes of it. … I think it’s really hard for people to swallow that we’ve made a huge, huge mistake.”
Following the announcement of the three-agency federal study, the Synthetic Turf Council issued a statement supporting the additional research but also asserting “existing studies clearly show that artificial turf fields and playgrounds with crumb rubber infill are safe and have no link to any health issues.”
Let the record show that existing studies can be contradictory. Yale chemist Gaboury Benoit, whose work was funded by Environmental and Human Health Inc. (EHHI), examined 14 samples of crumb rubber infill and playground mulch last year and identified 96 different chemicals, 10 of them containing “probable carcinogens.”
“The shredded tires contain a veritable witches’ brew of toxic substances,” Benoit said last June. “It seems irresponsible to market a hazardous waste as a consumer product.”
Thirteen days after EHHI published Benoit’s findings, RubbeRecycle weighed in with a 16-page memorandum by consulting toxicologist Laura Green.
“The evidence on crumb rubber and rubber mulch does not suggest, let alone demonstrate, that rubber mulch poses a significant risk to the health of children or others,” Green wrote.
Though both Benoit and Green earned their doctorates at MIT, their conflicting findings speak to the intellectual divide on the crumb rubber question and, implicitly, its financial stakes. With an estimated 12,000 crumb rubber athletic fields already in place in the United States, and state governments providing incentives to find an enduring use for millions of scrap tires, the possibility of a cancer link to the material could mean convulsive change .
Kentucky’s Division of Waste Management reports crumb rubber and mulch accounted for 21 percent of the state’s waste tire market in 2015, or about 8,230 tons. Estimates vary, but a standard football field can absorb the remains of 10s of thousands of shredded tires. Many states have embraced this form of recycling as an alternative to clogging landfills and clearing dumps.
Should perceived health risks cause a decline in demand for crumb rubber, Kentucky recycling manager Gary Logsdon hopes to compensate with a push for rubberized asphalt. Though Logsdon does not personally oppose the use of crumb rubber on playing fields, he is mindful of growing resistance. Connecticut’s Greenwich Academy recently replaced its crumb rubber field with one featuring natural wood fibers. Gary Callahan, superintendent of schools in Petaluma, Calif., says safety concerns prompted his community to “hedge our bet” last year by revising plans for a crumb rubber field to substitute an organic cork-based mixture at an additional cost of approximately $132,000.
“We were at a crossroads,” Callahan said. “The thought behind it was, ‘Yeah, it’s very inconclusive, but what happens if this report comes out and there’s a clear issue related to (crumb rubber) fields?’ We have invested a significant amount of money into this field. What would be the cost associated if the state says to phase it out? We’re looking at a cost of $500,000.”
And that’s for one field. According to its mayor’s office, New York City has 99 athletic fields that contain crumb rubber infill. Though former Mayor Michael Bloomberg once called the controversy over the shredded tires a “made-up story,” city officials have determined that future fields will be made from alternative materials. So, too, has the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Recognizing a shift in public opinion, numerous companies are now offering organic alternatives, including FieldTurf, which installed U of L’s crumb rubber fields. New York-based Greenplay Organics markets a cork/coconut fiber blend that company president Domenic Carapella says costs roughly 50 cents more per square foot than does crumb rubber. Since astandard football field covers 57,600 square feet (including end zones), Carapella’s alternative could add nearly $30,000 to projects that typically cost several hundred thousand dollars.
In many places, though, cost considerations remain paramount. Last August, an Illinois board of education approved a new crumb rubber field for Riverside-Brookfield High School at a cost of $423,814. An alternative infill called Nike Grind, made from the soles of athletic shoes, would have cost an additional $109,201. By Carapella’s estimate, crumb rubber still accounts for 95 percent of the market for synthetic fields.
Strothman says the cost of DeSales’ overlapping football/baseball installation will probably exceed $700,000. For those schools that can handle the up-front costs, the expectation is that they will recoup the investment over time through reduced maintenance and improved availability.
“Think personnel, mowers, gasoline – it’s almost always cheaper in the long run,” the KHSAA’s Tackett said. “The difficult part is when you’re first putting it in, there’s a big initial investment. And you have to have a new top layer in 10-12 years. But if you can do that, it becomes a big scheduling advantage. Instead of four fields, you can do it with one.”
To the extent that crumb rubber saves water and reduces reliance on pesticides, advocates argue that its environmental impact is mostly benign. To the extent that it is more forgiving than dirt, Strothman perceives a health benefit.
Crumb rubber and concussions
“The hottest topic right now is concussions,” he said. “And if you were to go out on our current playing surface, which is dirt and grass, that ground gets very hard, especially in the summer months. … A lot of folks have a misconception that concussions are all caused by head-to-head collisions when, in fact, probably most of them are caused by the head hitting the ground.
“That’s where the safety factor comes in with a synthetic field. … From a concussion standpoint, it’s a much safer playing surface for the student-athlete than a ground that has a tendency to dry up and get harder.”
DeSales athletic director Don Bowers, who was hired after the school’s crumb rubber commitment, says he asked questions about cancer but that his larger concern was also about concussions.
“I had a son who played college football and he played football in high school as well,” Bowers said. “He played on all of the surfaces that were out there. When he got to college and was playing on the synthetic turf, it was a much safer field for him as well as for the other individuals who were playing at the same time.
“When I was a parent looking into it, I had no qualms whatsoever as far as my son playing on a surface such as that.”
As an athletic director, Bowers looks at a crumb rubber field and sees as an opportunity to start a lacrosse team.
“Our school is not going back to grass,” said Ryle High School’s Stephen Collins, president of the Kentucky Soccer Coaches Association. “A grass field, by about the third week of the season is a mud pit. If you don’t have a turf field, you’re going to start canceling sporting events.”
During a January interview, Collins said no parent had inquired about the risks of crumb rubber, much less complained about them. Strothman says he’s had one question from a former DeSales student, but no negative fallout.
“Parents are up in arms about everything,” said Ted Nichols, of Kentucky Players Academy. “But not this.”
For their part, many young athletes view the small rubber particles more as a source of annoyance than anxiety.
“It sticks everywhere,” said Will Schneider, a freshman goalkeeper at St. X. “It’s in my bed, all over my floor. I played in a couple of tournaments on similar surfaces and when I got in the car I emptied out my shoes. It seemed like there were about a million of them.”
Schneider and Cole Gallagher, a junior goalkeeper at Kentucky Country Day, both say they have found crumb rubber in their mouths after diving for balls. For Trinity goalkeeper Ryan Lenahan, “Usually it’s just in my hair.”
“My dad always wants me to wear long sleeves and long pants whenever I’m on it,” Gallagher said. “But sometimes, when it’s 100 degrees in the summer, it’s hard to wear long clothing.”
Gallagher has learned to knock his cleats together after practice before climbing into a car, but the black pellets still show up “everywhere you can imagine.”
“I find the occasional piece in my bed,” he said. “But I get the majority of it out.”
Tim Sullivan can be reached at (502) 582-4650, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TimSullivan714 on Twitter.