By Dan Bond, Art Dodge and Rom Reddy, Opinion Contributors
The Environmental Protection Agency has been tweaking what it bills a comprehensive investigation of synthetic turf fields and playground infill containing recycled rubber. The initiative launched in February 2016 in response to unfounded claims about potential health risks. Today we’re still waiting on the agency — to either develop a credible study or accept the extensive scientific research that shows no evidence of a connection between recycled rubber and health risks.
The results of the study — led by the EPA in conjunction with the Consumer Products Safety Commission and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry — were intended to fill any “data and knowledge gaps” in the existing body of science, and address the lingering rumors and concerns around the safety of these products once and for all.
However, what has transpired since has achieved the exact opposite. Repeated delays, along with disclosures revealing the limitations of the study’s designs, have instead failed to fulfill this mission.
As the multi-agency study drags along — likely to take two more years at the least — parents and school officials nationwide await clarity, and in many cases are altering, delaying and even cancelling planned field projects. This is despite the fact that the credible science has overwhelmingly shown exposure to any chemicals present in recycled rubber is not meaningfully different from exposure to urban or rural soil. What’s more, this ongoing regulatory uncertainty is costing American jobs.
Troublingly, the EPA admitted in July that, “Due to time and resources constraints, we are not able, within this study, to investigate other types of fields (e.g. natural grass, synthetic fields with natural product infill, synthetic fields with EPDM or TPE infill) with sufficient sample sizes and statistical power” and also added, “(I)t is important to recognize that chemicals are present in other types of fields, including natural grass fields.”
In other words, they are evaluating recycled rubber in a vacuum without benchmarking findings against the relative safety of natural grass. This calls into question the basic usefulness of this study at all, which is why we have repeatedly asked EPA to use a benchmark.
Notably, in the past 16 months, a series of additional fact-based, scientific findings have been released adding to the more than 90 studies, peer-reviewed academic analyses and government reports already demonstrating the safety of these products.
First, the Washington Department of Health dispelled the notion that there was a connection between youth cancer cases in the state — as documented on a list kept by a notable soccer coach — and playing soccer on recycled rubber fields (an anecdotal theory that has been reported on heavily by the media). The department found prevalence of cancers among soccer players, select and premier players and goalkeepers on the list was actually less than could be expected of a random sampling.
Furthermore, as noted by the former Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, a key finding of the department investigators was that players on the list had actually spent the majority of their time on natural grass fields. The department recommended, “people who enjoy soccer continue to play irrespective of the type of field surface.”
Relevant overseas bodies such as RIVM, the Dutch equivalent of EPA, and the European Chemicals Agency conducted their own scientific tests of recycled rubber and arrived at strikingly similar conclusions and recommendations. The two organizations referred to any potential risks posed by recycled rubber as “virtually negligible,” and “a very low level of concern,” respectively.
Last month, Dr. Archie Bleyer, a pediatric oncologist who chaired the Children’s Cancer Group for a decade, cited more than 41 sources in a peer-reviewed journal, Sports Medicine, stating the science does not support the hypothesis that recycled rubber is unsafe. He added that by providing more playing surfaces and thereby promoting healthier lifestyles, recycled rubber actually lessened the likelihood of cancer.
Prominent athletic organizations have shared similar statements. The chairman of the FIFA Medical Committee wrote, “A large number of studies have further confirmed that the effect of SBR rubber are as negligible as the effect of ingesting grilled foods or exposure to [tire] wear on roads in everyday life.” The Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation commissioned its own study for baseball players and found that cancer risks were “at or below one in a million.”
In short, the only issue left unsettled in the recycled rubber debate is whether the EPA and its fellow agencies will conclude their study in a timely way or at least issue a statement to the public to put a prompt end to today’s uncertainty. Certainly given this recent wave of new science, there are many better uses of taxpayer dollars and the agency’s time.
The science is clear, and any further examination that omits the necessary control group of natural grass will only lead to more confusion around a question that now has been resoundingly answered…