Artificial Turf Cancer? Let’s get something straight right from the top: if you’re playing once or twice per week on artificial turf (sometimes just referred to as “3G”), the risk of getting cancer from it is not something that should register high up your list of worries.
Why would you even think it might?
We’ll, as strange as it sounds, there have been some scare stories out there suggesting that artificial pitches represent a cancer risk. A lot of it hasn’t been reported very responsibly so it’s worth looking at in more detail.
Why might 3G artificial turf give me cancer?
As we covered in our article: What You Need to Know About Artificial Grass, most modern artificial surfaces are covered with something called ‘rubber crumb infill’ – the little black bits that you see on the turf and are still picking out of your shoes a fortnight after a game.
These rubber bits help improve the natural bounce of the ball and keep the surface in good condition by protecting against wear and tear. The problem is they’re made of recycled car tyres, and not everybody is sure that this is a suitable material to be using.
Whilst this ingenious use of car tyres is great news in saving landfill space, concerns have been raised that pouring billions of ground-up tyres all over our pitches might not be good for the players coming into contact with it on a regular basis.
Is rubber crumb dangerous?
Testing the rubber crumb in a lab is the easy bit, and it has been found that it does contain a number of chemicals that are considered carcinogenic (external link).
But we’ve known that for ages. What’s more difficult to assess is whether they are there in quantities and combinations that make them dangerous, and whether they are being transmitted to humans whilst we play.
It’s not like anyone is going around trying to eat this stuff. Remember, the majority of players are never touching rubber crumb with anything other than the bottom of their shoe. So how is that resulting in a cancer risk?
Maybe it’s not. At least that’s the assumption we’ve been working under for quite a while now:
- FIFA released a letter addressing this very concern as far back as 2006. At that point, they concluded that there was no significant risk to participants from using artificial turf fields (external link to that letter)
- The US Environmental Protection Agency did a limited study across a small number of facilities and concluded that the limited data they collected do not point to a concern.
So you might wonder why there’s still an issue.
Why do people (still) think artificial turf might cause cancer?
The most recent news articles on this topic have stemmed from the US, where the concept of artificial turf never seems to have sat easily with a lot of people, despite there being tens of thousands of facilities.
One person in particular has been making news in this area. That’s Amy Griffin – Former member of the US Women’s National Team and current Goalkeeper Coach for the University of Washington.
Six years ago on a visit to a children’s cancer ward, Amy was informed by a nurse that the patient she was visiting was the fifth goalkeeper to be treated that week. When Amy discovered this, she began to wonder if there was a link between them and their use of artificial turf surfaces. So she began collecting a list of similar cases.
A pitch that’s heavy on the rubber crumb.
In 6 years she found 187 young people with cancer, 150 of whom are soccer players and 95 are goalkeepers (who typically spend a bit more time rolling around on the turf). Although many of the newspapers reported this as a ‘study’, it doesn’t prove (or disprove) anything.
In the UK alone, there are 386 new cases per year of Hodgkins Lymphona (just one type of cancer on Amy’s list) in people between Between 10 and 24 years old – sadly, young people are especially vulnerable to it). Over the course of 6 years, you might consider that it would be possible to find examples of those who have come into contact with artificial turf surfaces on a regular basis. That doesn’t prove that their cancer was caused by it.
Are soccer players at higher risk of cancer than other people?
The list of names compiled by Coach Griffin attracted so much media attention that the Washington State Department of Health decided to investigate the matter.
They compared the numbers of players identified as having cancer by coach Griffin and compared it to the overall number of people diagnosed with cancer. They found that, in fact, the number of soccer players suffering from cancer was far lower than that of the overall population. Coach Griffin’s list, therefore, was not considered to point to a high correlation between artificial turf and cancer.
After looking at those statistics, their recommendation, issued in this report issued in January 2017, was that “people who enjoy soccer continue to play irrespective of the type of field surface.”
Coach Griffith’s list had got people understandably concerned. Especially when you see it being reported in a rather dramatic way. Cancer is no laughing matter, and even the idea that artificial turf could be linked to it is unsettling. But Washington State Department of Health have shown that the number of people on that list isn’t, in itself, a cause for any panic.
How can we know for sure if there’s any cancer risk?
Even after the Washington State Department of Health’s report that soccer players do not show higher levels of cancer than others, many would still not regard that as conclusive. Remember, that’s just a study looking into the numbers. Not the cause and effect.
Even though some initial studies have been done there hasn’t yet been one that has looked at long term exposure to crumb rubber, which might occur through inhilation, ingestion, or contact with open wounds.
The recent publicity has at least achieved one thing: it has raised the debate again with the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), who are now taking this matter very seriously and are going to report back with a more detailed investigation.
That’s good news for all of us playing on these surfaces. We need a more thorough study giving us a definitive study on the safety of these surfaces, given that they’re used by millions of people every week.
Should I stop playing on these surfaces until we know more?
That, of course, is a matter of personal choice.
Remember, various indicative studies have suggested that there is no significant risk of getting cancer from this type of turf.
But it’s also worth having some perspective here. If you’re spending one or two hours per week for your regular game of 5-a-side (or any other format of the game) on a rubber-crumb artificial surface then the risk of cancer must be considered low, and that’s what the limited studies already carried out seem to suggest.
Millions of people are playing on artificial turf each week and are unlikely to stop.
In fact, of all the things I’d worry about for a regular game of football, cancer wouldn’t even make my top 10.
If anything is going to increase your risk of health problems, including cancer, it would be packing in your regular game and losing out on the opportunity to exercise on a regular basis.
So, until we get a definitive study on these surfaces telling us there is a danger, millions of us will keep on using them.
Tips to minimise contact with rubber crumb
These are things that you should be doing anyway, as a basic matter of hygiene:
- Wash your hands after each game of football to remove any traces of rubber crumb that you might have picked up.
- If you have a open wound which has got rubber crumb in it, ensure that you bathe the affected area to remove any of this debris.
- Consider checking out this balanced article (one of few that are) on the subject: https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/growth-curve/science-may-get-sidelined-artificial-turf-debate
- Watch the ESPN report on the matter – Youtube
- News article covering the Washington State Department of Health findings, January 2017.