Posted on

Feds promote artificial turf as safe despite health concerns

Lead levels high enough to potentially harm children have been found in artificial turf used at thousands of schools, playgrounds and day-care centers across the country, yet two federal agencies continue to promote the surfacing as safe, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

Lead levels high enough to potentially harm children have been found in artificial turf used at thousands of schools, playgrounds and day-care centers across the country, yet two federal agencies continue to promote the surfacing as safe, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

The growing use of turf fields layered with rubber crumbs has raised health concerns centered mostly on whether players face increased risk of injury, skin infection or cancer. The U.S. has more than 11,000 artificial turf fields, which can cost $1 million to replace.

But largely overlooked has been the possible harm to young children from ingesting lead in turf materials, and the federal government’s role in encouraging their use despite doing admittedly limited research on their health safety.

Lead is a well-known children’s hazard that over time can cause lost intelligence, developmental delays, and damage to organs and the nervous system.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, charged with protecting children from lead in consumer products, has promoted turf-and-rubber fields for nearly seven years with a website headline declaring them “OK to install, OK to play on.” A news release says, “Young children are not at risk from exposure to lead in these fields,” even though the commission found potentially hazardous lead levels in some turf fibers and did not test any rubber crumbs, which are made from recycled tires that contain roughly 30 hazardous substances including lead.

The commission has acknowledged shortcomings in its 2008 study, which spokesman Scott Wolfson says “was just a handful of fields and was not representative of the full scope of fields across the country.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has promoted the use of rubber crumbs in athletic fields and on playground surfaces since 1995 to help create markets for recycled car and truck tires.But the EPA didn’t investigate the potential toxicity until 2008 and now says in a statement that “more testing needs to be done” to determine the materials’ safety.

“We’re using your children as part of the poison squad,” said Bruce Lanphear, a leading researcher on lead poisoning at Simon Fraser University in Canada, who suggests a moratorium on installing artificial-turf fields until their safety is proved.

The health threat is substantial enough that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists artificial turf as one of seven sources of children’s lead exposure along with well-known items such as paint, water and toys.

The CDC in 2008 said communities should test recreational areas with turf fibers made from nylon, and they should bar children younger than 6 from the areas if the lead level exceeded the federal limit for lead in soil in children’s play areas.

But some communities have refused to test their fields, fearing that a high lead level would generate lawsuits or force them to replace and remove a field, which costs about $1 million, according to a 2011 New Jersey state report.

“If you’re exposing children to some potentially harmful compounds, whether it’s organic compounds or metals, you’d think you’d want to know so you can take some action instead of putting your hands over your eyes and saying, ‘I don’t see a problem,’ ” Shalat said.


Industry groups have touted the federal endorsements, which have helped vastly expand the nation’s use of artificial turf. It now blankets more than 11,000 fields, from NFL stadiums to elementary-school plots, and millions more square feet at resorts, office parks and playgrounds, according to the Synthetic Turf Council.

“There is tremendous growth in all sectors of the industry,” the council says, calling turf a durable, year-round playing surface that needs no watering, pesticides or fertilizers.

The council says turf materials are safe for people of all ages who may absorb particulates through ingestion, inhalation or skin contact. Government and academic studies “all have concluded” that a turf-and-rubber field “does not pose a human health risk to people of all ages,” the council says in a PowerPoint presentation.

But the council mischaracterizes some studies and ignores scientists’ warnings about children possibly ingesting lead in turf fibers and rubber crumbs.

The council quotes a supposed statement in a 2002 EPA report saying that children who play for years on turf-and-rubber fields face only minimal increased cancer risk. The statement actually is from a Rubber Manufacturers Association report and is not in the EPA report. Council spokeswoman Terrie Ward said the inaccuracy was “an honest mistake.”

Only a few studies have investigated the possible harm to young children from ingesting turf fibers or rubber crumbs, which can be as small as a pencil tip or as large as a wood chip. The studies analyzed a small number of turf materials.

A widely cited study by California officials in 2007 did not consider health effects of children ingesting rubber crumbs or turf fibers. The study analyzed three playground surfaces made of crumbs fused into a solid rubberized surface and found negligible risk from children ingesting rubber dust that might get on their hands or from swallowing a rubber chunk once in their lifetimes.

“Research consistently supports the safety of recycled crumb rubber,” said Mark Oldfield, a spokesman for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery. Nonetheless, the department is planning a new study on health effects of artificial turf and crumb rubber that will look at children ingesting crumb material chronically.

Connecticut state toxicologist Gary Ginsberg says turf materials would not be a “major source of lead” for young children given the limited amount of time they spend on a field or playground.

Others are worried. The Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection in January stopped giving communities money to build playgrounds and fields with crumb rubber. “There are no large-scale, national studies on the possible health issues associated with inhalation, ingestion or contact,” the department said. “Research to date has been inconclusive, contradictory or limited in scope.”

CDC: ‘No safe lead level’ in children

At least 10 studies since 2007 — including those by the safety commission and the EPA — have found potentially harmful lead levels in turf fibers and in rubber crumbs, USA TODAY found.

Researchers flagged fibers and crumbs that exceeded the federal hazard level of 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead in soil where children play. The limit aims to protect children if they ingest lead-contaminated soil — either by swallowing soil directly or by putting dirty hands and toys in their mouths.

But some scientists say that the limit, established in 2000, is too high and ignores recent research showing, as the CDC now says, that “no safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

“Every turf field has to be analyzed in detail to be sure it doesn’t have a problem,” said Paul Lioy, a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.

California has set a much lower standard for lead in soil: 80 ppm.

When the Los Angeles school district in 2008 tested turf-and-rubber play areas in its preschool facilities, it used 60 ppm as a safety level. After two play areas recorded lead readings in the low 60s, the district removed the turf-and-rubber surfaces from all 54 preschools and replaced them with solid rubber or asphalt at a total cost of several hundred thousand dollars.

“Because of the physical development of younger children, lead has a greater propensity to be absorbed,” said Robert Laughton, the school district’s environmental health and safety director. “They’re the most at-risk population we have.”

Artificial turf at a Nevada day care had 8,800 ppm of lead — 22 times the federal soil hazard level, according to a 2010 study led by a scientist at the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. In 2008, New Jersey health officials found lead levels eight to 10 times the federal level in both school athletic fields and in turf marketed for residential use.

Turf-and-rubber fields typically contain about 200,000 pounds of rubber crumbs, made from thousands of former car and truck tires that may have varying levels of hazardous substances. A single field can have “substantial variability” in its materials and in the “concentrations of contaminants,” the EPA wrote in a 2009 study, listing 32 potential contaminants including arsenic, benzene, mercury and toluene.

“You pick up rubber off a field and you don’t know what that piece of rubber came from,” said health advocate David Brown, Connecticut’s former head of environmental epidemiology and occupational health. “It’s not a manufactured item. It’s a waste. There isn’t quality control.”

Lead in rubber crumbs under scrutiny

The presence of lead in turf or rubber crumb does not automatically endanger children. Health damage depends on how much lead children absorb into their bloodstream after ingestion. And absorption depends on whether the lead is tightly bound to the turf or crumb — or easily extracted during digestion.

The EPA’s 2009 study said that more than 90% of the lead in rubber crumbs tested was “tightly bound” to the rubber and “unavailable for absorption.” The results “do not point to a concern” about artificial turf-and-rubber crumb harming human health, the agency said.

The absorption finding was contradicted by a 2008 study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology that found lead from rubber crumbs was “highly bioaccessible.”

“When people ingest this (crumb rubber), the gastrointestinal tract, the bile fluids, will get the lead out. That means it will be getting into the body, not just passing through,” said the study’s chief author, Jim Zhang, a Duke University environmental health professor.

Scientists and health officials havewarned also about older turf fibers. Many contain a lead-based pigment that adds vibrancy and colorfastness, and which could release lead particles as fibers get worn, cracked and abraded.

“Fibers deteriorate after five or six years. You’re going to get leaching,” Lioy said.

The CDC’s 2008 advisory says that as turf ages and weathers, “lead is released in dust that could then be ingested or inhaled.”

In California, after health advocates measured high lead levels in artificial turf at schools and public areas in 2008, the state attorney general sued manufacturers, which agreed to stop using lead-based pigments in turf. Manufacturers began using only lead-free pigments by the end of 2009, the turf council says.

“After our settlements, we think the industry has pretty much cleaned up,” said Charles Margulis of the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, which tested the turf. “But that leaves a lot of older fields out there.”

It is unclear how many recreational areas have older fibers with lead-based pigment. Turf companies and consultants say a turf field lasts 10 to 15 years. In 2009, before turf manufacturers phased out lead, the U.S. had approximately 4,500 turf fields.

Internal warning surfaces at EPA

Federal regulators began focusing on possible health damage from turf-and-rubber fields in 2008, at least a decade after their installation began. The EPA had been promoting the use of rubber crumbs for various applications since the early 1990s as a way to recycle millions of discarded automobile tires.

The agency didn’t consider toxicity until parents began calling its Denver office concerned about children coming home from sports practice covered in rubber crumbs, said Suzanne Wuerthele, a retired EPA toxicologist in Denver who raised concerns within the agency in 2007.

A 2008 memo by the Denver office noted the rubber’s potential harm, the inadequacy of research — including industry-touted studies — and suggested a “formal risk assessment of risks to children playing on tire crumb surfaces.”

The EPA study fell far short of that goal. The study is “very limited,” the EPA said when it was released, and “it is not possible to extend the results beyond the four study sites.”

The agency has said recently that the study was intended only to determine how to test crumb rubber, “not to determine the potential health risks of recycled tire crumb.”

In 2013, following a complaint by an environmental group, the EPA qualified the news release for its 2009 study with a note stating, “This news release is outdated.” Yet the note directs readers to a Web page that contains the same study.

“They need to stop promoting it and find out if it’s safe, or make a statement that we don’t know if it’s safe,” Wuerthele said, referring to recycled-rubber crumbs. “You just don’t put children on a finely ground surface that contains organics, fibers, latex and heavy metals, particularly lead.”

The Consumer Product Safety Commission launched its probe in 2008 after New Jersey health officials found high lead levels in three artificial turf athletic fields and told the commission that more than 90% of the lead could be absorbed into a human bloodstream. “It’s a special concern for children who are already exposed to lead,” New Jersey state epidemiologist Eddy Bresnitz said at the time. “This could add to their lead levels.”

The commission tested 26 turf fibers from four manufacturers and has neither conducted nor cited research on rubber crumbs.

By contrast, a 2007 commission investigation of possible lead poisoning from vinyl baby bibs tested 81 samples from 40 bibs. Although the average lead concentration in the bib samples was less than half the average lead concentration in the turf fibers, the commission warned about “potential risk of lead exposure from baby bibs.”

The turf study showed that two fibers would release potentially harmful amounts of lead into a child’s bloodstream — 9.9 micrograms and 6.6 micrograms.

“That’s a huge concern,” Lanphear, the lead expert said, noting that children can ingest lead from a range of sources such as household paint, dust and drinking water.

The Food and Drug Administration says children should ingest no more than 6 micrograms of lead a day from all sources — food and nonfood.

The commission says children can safely consume 15 micrograms per day of lead.

But the commission backtracked when the environmental group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility asked it to rescind the “OK to play on” headline. The commission added a note to the release acknowledging it never tested for toxic substances other than lead and advising readers to “read and interpret the following press release carefully.”

The commission did not change the headline because that might imply new research had been done, said Wolfson, the commission spokesman.

“They’re making broad claims that aren’t supported by the very limited information they have,” said Jeff Ruch, the environmental group’s executive director. Industry groups citing the commission “end up bordering on false advertising.”

Read the original article posted on KGW here.