Should You Stop Your Kid From Playing on Artificial Turf?

That's the question I've been asking myself and likely you have too if you saw or watched the NBC News Report last week, which linked more than 30 cases of cancer among soccer players to the fact that they played on artificial turf. My kids are still in elementary school and don't play on artificial turf very often now. But if they stick with soccer as I suspect that they will, they will be on it a lot. Perhaps several hours a day, several times a week. And my son — who I know will play some sort of field sport as a middle or high schooler — will play not just on my town's turf, but on neighboring towns' too, as artificial turf is becoming more and more popular across the country. And like the players in the NBC story, he will come home with the tire crumb in his uniform, in his hair, and even in his belly after ingesting it during a big play/tackle/save/what have you. And all I can think is, That's it. He's not playing any field sports!

Oh, I know that is not rational thinking. And I realize the many wonderful benefits there are to playing a sport. But as a mother, the stories of those goalies with cancer are just as compelling and frankly, they are so scary that I just couldn't put it in the same bucket with all those other Many Things Out There We Parents Can't Control. I kept coming back to this simple question: What if in 10 years my son is diagnosed with cancer and I KNEW this information and yet I did nothing? How could I live with myself?

To get some perspective, I went to an expert in pediatric environmental health: Joel Forman, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. He brought me off the ledge, a bit. He points out that we'll never be able to prove that the goalies' cancers were caused by the artificial turf. But we'll also never be able to prove that they aren't. "There are just so many gaps in the data as to what the long term affects might be," he says. "We just don't know. We'll probably never know." And it's not just that we won't know about cancer, he notes. We likely won't ever know for sure if any of other multitude of chemicals in the turf cause any other problems in our kids, either.

Okay; not so reassuring. But as parents, we can be more aware. First of all, it's important to know what type of artificial turf your child is playing on (or will play on in the future). The surface that is under scrutiny here is "tire crumb" or "crumb rubber". It's basically a surface that is made up of used tires with fake grass coming out of it. (The grass itself used to be made with lead -- thankfully, that is no longer the case.) Tire Crumb is a popular choice in fields across the country because as you can imagine, there are a lot of old tires out there that could otherwise be taking up space in landfills. The trouble though, as Dr. Forman points out, You don't know where those tires have been. "Think of all these tires running around on different vehicles collecting pollution, exhaust. The list of chemicals in those tires is just so long." (You can see the list here collected by the EPA; some of which are known carcinogens and/or have been linked to cognitive delays or other problems in children.)

The best thing to do? Replace the crumb rubber with a substance we do know more about. Coconut husks. Cork. Sand. Even plastic. New York City uses a turf called SandFlex (the city banned crumb rubber infill in their fields in 2008.) And the NFL is using a substance called TPE (thermoplastic elastomer) which is basically plastic and new rubber (not recycled tires). While Dr. Forman points out that none of them have been studied either, this is what convinced me: "At least you know what you're getting. You don't have this long list of compounds like you do with used tires."

Replacing the turf in your town or school's field may not be easy to do. Especially if your town just built a gorgeous new field made with crumb rubber infill like a lot of communities have. But if they haven't, suggest that they look at alternatives. And perhaps even if they have. After all, I would hate to have to look my son in the eye one day and say Yes, we knew about this. We all talked about it for days, weeks. It totally went viral back in the day. But we didn't do anything about it.

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