3G rubber crumb - an inconvenient truth? - comment by GMA CEO Geoff Webb

Hampton School synthetic rugby pitch

A lot of press attention has recently been given (once again) to the subject of rubber crumb infill in 3G artificial pitches. For the first time in the UK, a father has claimed that his son, who has contracted Hodgkin’s lymphoma, may have done so by playing in goal on 3G pitches. This alleged link is not a first. In the USA a similar claim has been made after the coach of a goalkeeper raised the issue and compiled a list of 75 other incidents from around North America citing the possibility of carcinogenic effects from infill.

The UK claim was picked up by the national newspapers and TV, and prompted The Football Association (The FA) to release a statement:

“The Football Association adheres to the latest independent evidence that indicates that 3G pitches in the UK, which are built to industry-standard specifications, are safe. From time-to-time, concerns are raised in the media as to the safety or environmental risks associated with these pitches and their constituent parts, commonly rubber crumb. The numerous scientific studies conducted by government agencies around the world, and undertaken by independent experts, have all validated the human health and environmental safety of 3G pitches and rubber crumb. Third generation artificial turf is recognised as a durable, safe, year-round playing surface, able to withstand regular use and all kinds of weather. It enables significant increases in sports participation, ensuring far more individuals and communities benefit from all of the associated social and health benefits of physical activity.”

Eminent testing laboratories such as Sports Labs and Labosport also came out strongly on the side of “no significant evidence”. Indeed, Labosport’s Dr Colin Young compared the issue to an existing toy standard (EN71 Part 3) which is linked to the safety of children’s toys. Dr Young stated that, from the sampling undertaken by his company: “There was no significant statistical evidence of toxicological issues or elevated levels on tests carried out on SBR pitches; these examples being taken from pitches in the USA, Europe and the UK.”

So, why then in the USA is it that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just changed its stance and in the past month issued this statement on its website: “Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb, but the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”

The EPA has developed a Tire Crumb and Synthetic Turf Field Literature and Report List (November 2015). It is an extensive, although not exhaustive, survey of the literature from the past 12 years.

In addition, both SAPCA (the Sports and Play Construction Association), and ESTO (European Synthetic Turf Organisation) recently reported the same view as The FA and Sports Labs, that no conclusive evidence exists to link the cause and effect of rubber crumb infill with cancer. Both organisations have members which supply the product. Equally, there are other ‘outlets’ such as
‘is3gsafe’ which passionately believes there are issues and, indeed, other advocates within the wider turf industry who are deeply suspicious and who challenge the current findings.

So, how do we make sense of it all? It is no surprise that The FA and the toxicologists have made the statements they have. Very often the word ‘independent’ is used when quoting research. But is all existing research truly independent? To find the answer, you need to investigate who commissioned the research, who paid for the research and what motivated the research in the first place. That is not always easy. It’s rather like trying to find the original source for the rubber crumb that is now on a pitch near you. Even hardened advocates of the product would struggle to provide that answer.

What is evident is that across the world of football, from FIFA globally through UEFA in Europe and with The FA, the IRB and the home country sports associations, it is patently clear that there has been a massive long-term promotion of and investment in artificial turf, of which rubber crumb has consistently been a controversial element. Not good if you have invested in it, and not good for business if it is called into question.

So, a new battleground emerges with those selling and marketing artificial turf against those advocating natural turf, each looking to convince the wider world of the merits or issues of both surfaces.

Is the issue of rubber crumb infill an inconvenient truth or just an inconvenience? Whatever your stance, the debate is set to continue. Surely, as an industry we have a simple duty of care? If, as the EPA statement says, research is limited, surely more research is required? Perhaps the Environment Agency or the British Medical Association, organisations with no links to the industry, should provide a second opinion?

What if the UK father is right? What if the USA coach is right? Even if it is only analytical evidence at present, one death is one too many.

The GMA believes this is an issue that must not be literally swept under the carpet, but we must take a balanced view. This issue has parallels with goalpost safety and, as a result of a public awareness campaign, a nationwide scheme addressed goalpost safety with the result that many lives are now being saved because the industry and The FA acted and goals are now subject to European and British safety standards.

What we need with rubber crumb are safe standards that make any component part of any surface fit for use and safe for the end user. As Dr Young stated in his interview, “There are no current British, European or worldwide standards for SBR rubber in terms of uses for sport”. Isn’t that enough to set alarm bells ringing?

We will continue to look at all the evidence and will act in the best interests of our members, reporting equally the case for and against and, where necessary, challenge if dissatisfied with the answers.

What we must not lose sight of, however, is that we have a responsibility to the end user to provide a safe and consistent playing surface – whether synthetic, reinforced or natural turf. That’s what our members pride themselves on. Their passion, combined with the natural desire of human nature to check and challenge will ultimately provide the answers we need.

Written by GMA CEO Geoff Webb, 26 February 2016