In case you missed it, the Edina School Board recently decided to go ahead with a controversial plan to install new synthetic turf playing fields at schools throughout Edina. This plan calls for the replacement of four playing fields that are currently grass covered with an artificial turf that contains, among other things, ground up old tires which is commonly referred to as crumb rubber.
The case for using crumb rubber instead of natural grass or other synthetic alternatives is simple enough: Grass fields tend to get worn out from overuse and often need time to regrow which can impact practice and playing schedules for sports teams. In addition, according to the Edina School Board, crumb rubber is both more durable and about half as expensive as other synthetic alternatives.
So if crumb rubber is a reliable and cheap alternative to grass what’s the problem with it? Well according to some researchers and news outlets, crumb rubber’s safety simply isn’t guaranteed. In fact, an investigation by NBC News in 2014 showed a number of college soccer goalies in Washington State who developed cancer after playing soccer extensively on fields that used crumb rubber. Similar reporting by ESPN found examples of young athletes with a history of playing on crumb rubber fields coming down with health problems including cancer.
To be sure, there’s no definitive research linking crumb rubber to cancer. But there are also not too many studies that cannot prove that fields covered in tire mulch are guaranteed to be safe. Tires after all contain a number of chemicals for strength and durability. This is why when you replace your tires you have to pay a fee to have your old ones recycled when you buy new ones. And this is also why it’s illegal to throw old tires into the trash; tires are just too toxic to put into a landfill.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is slatted to release new recommendations on the issue of crumb rubber later this year. This report may vindicate crumb rubber, but then again it might not. But we do know that since the crumb rubber industry was created in the 90’s it might take some time to discover long-term adverse health affects or environmental impacts.
The good news is that if the EPA finds that crumb rubber is actually more dangerous than previously thought, the Edina School District has promised to take another look at their decision. But that just raises the bigger question of why ground up tires are being put on playing fields to begin with? If there are better non-toxic alternatives available, why are we taking the risk at all?