News Brief

California Questions Whether Low VOCs Make Artificial Turf Safe

Smell no evil, see no evil: low counts of toxic fumes have been cited to argue turf fields with crumb rubber are safe, but a new bill calls for more study.  

A moratorium on building new turf
fields in California might
be imposed
while the health risks of crumb rubber are studied further.

Photo: M.O. Stevens License: CC BY 3.0
California Senator Jerry Hill is calling for crumb rubber—the ground pieces of old tire that are used for artificial turf fields—to again be put under the microscope amidst concerns that the material emits harmful compounds or acts as a carcinogen.

So far, the few risk evaluations that have been conducted have found crumb rubber to be safe for sport fields and playground surfaces. One oft-referenced 2010 study prepared by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, while identifying nine different VOCs and fine particulates emanating from samples of four artificial turf fields, determined that the level of exposure via inhalation did not present a health hazard.

But tires also contain other potentially dangerous substances, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals that might be harmful if they touch people’s skin or get into abrasions—exposure pathways that seem especially likely on sports fields and playgrounds. Tires also contain several known carcinogens, including benzene, butadiene, and arsenic, and the lack of a long-term exposure study has been made more glaring by recent anecdotal reports of high instances of cancer among soccer goalies aired by NBC News.

Referencing concerns that young athletes might increasingly be developing cancer, Hill’s bill calls for a more extensive evaluation of these alternate exposure pathways with a more robust study sample. If it passes, public and private schools and local governments in California would be unable to install new synthetic-turf fields and playground surfaces until the results of the study are published.

Artificial turf is sometimes preferred because it averts the need for the water and fertilizer used for grass fields (see Which Grass is Greener? Comparing Natural and Artificial Turf), but alternatives to crumb rubber exist, including coconut fibers, rice husks, cork, and recycled shoes.

Published February 1, 2015

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