Link Between Synthetic Turf Fields and Student Athlete Illnesses Considered

Their son is gone.

Luke Beardemphl, a standout Tacoma soccer player during his years at Stadium High School, died last year at 24, following a seven-year battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

But Luke’s parents, Mike and Stephanie Beardemphl, now worry about the kids who will come after him, running, rolling and diving into the more than 11,000 artificial turf soccer fields around the country – including at more than a dozen schools in the Tacoma School District – just as their goalkeeper son did.

Most of those synthetic turf fields are cushioned with a material called crumb rubber, made from ground-up used tires. The tiny pellets are loosely distributed as infill between artificial blades of grass woven into a carpet-like base. Modern turf fields are the successors to the original 1960s-era AstroTurf. Athletes who play on today’s fields that use crumb rubber infill are familiar with the “little black dots” that are kicked up during a game or practice, reported The News Tribune.

Families such as the Beardemphls have added their voices to a growing chorus of concern about whether the rubber specks that stick to skin, hair and clothing, and that get in players’ eyes, mouths and open wounds, contain toxic substances that contribute to cancer in young athletes.

“To me it’s obvious,” said Stephanie Beardemphl. “There is a problem, and there needs to be more action by the government.”

Her husband Mike compares crumb rubber to materials like asbestos or the pesticide DDT – both thought to be useful products until their dangers were discovered.

Turf industry: No studies prove cancer link

Synthetic turf and crumb rubber became popular with schools and parks throughout the country during the 1990s, and recycling used tires was billed as positive for the environment.

Groundskeepers liked that it didn’t need water, fertilizer or herbicides, never needed mowing and could withstand year-round use – even in the soggy Northwest.

The Atlanta-based industry group known as the Synthetic Turf Council maintains that crumb rubber has been well-studied for decades in the United States and Europe and that dozens of studies have failed to prove a link between crumb rubber infill on sports fields and cancer.

They point to studies such as one from Connecticut in 2010 that found playing on synthetic turf fields containing crumb rubber did not elevate health risks. However, the Connecticut researchers also noted that their study was limited to measuring chemicals from five artificial turf fields, and did not explore the potential risks of ingestion or skin exposure. They called for more study.

Other studies have been conducted in New York, New Jersey and by federal agencies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: “Limited studies have not shown an elevated health risk from playing on fields with tire crumb, but the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb.”

In February, the federal government announced a new study that will try to probe more deeply.

Industry representatives say they welcome examination of their product.

“We have consistently said that we support all additional research,” a turf council statement reads. “At the same time, we strongly reaffirm that the existing studies clearly show that artificial turf fields and playgrounds with crumb rubber are safe and have no link to any health issues.”

The turf council points out that the same kind of recycled rubber used on synthetic turf fields is used to make a variety of other products, including sneakers and garden hoses.

But those kinds of reassurances don’t satisfy critics.

Amy’s list

Concerns about the safety of crumb rubber first took root in Washington state.

In 2009, University of Washington soccer coach Amy Griffin was thinking about two soccer goalkeepers she knew who had been diagnosed with lymphoma. One of the players mentioned the ubiquitous “little black dots,” wondered what was in them and whether they might have something to do with her illness.

Griffin didn’t think much about it at first.

“I thought I would find out and be able to tell parents, ‘We’re all good. No need for concern,”‘ Griffin said.

After doing some reading, she discovered her players were running around on fields made in part from used tires.

Griffin, a graduate of Federal Way’s Decatur High School, played club soccer as a teen, college soccer at the University of Central Florida and then landed a spot as goalkeeper on the U.S. National Team. She was part of the team that won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991.

She came to the UW several years later. During her early years there, Griffin said, she didn’t know any young people with cancer. But that began to change over time. She often went along when Husky soccer players went on goodwill visits to kids at Seattle Children’s hospital.

One year, she visited four young soccer players with cancer. Three were goalkeepers.

“I kept asking people, ‘Don’t you think this is weird?”‘ Griffin recalled. “I kept bumping into more and more people.”

She decided to make a list, starting with perhaps 13 or 14 cancer patients, “mostly people I knew personally or had met at Children’s.”

On a yellow legal pad, she recorded their names, their diagnosis and contact information. Griffin’s optimism began to fade, and – remembering the comment from her ill player about the little black dots – she started raising questions about the safety of crumb rubber.

After she raised those questions during an NBC News broadcast in 2014, ill soccer players and families from around the country began getting in touch with her to relate their stories.

“I had no idea it was going to grow that big,” Griffin said. “It became like a second job, with people reaching out to me.”

The list outgrew Griffin’s legal pad. Someone helped her create a website to collect the information.

Griffin’s list grew to contain 220 athletes – soccer players, football players, lacrosse, field hockey and baseball players. About 55 are from Washington state, including Luke Beardemphl.

Griffin freely acknowledges her collection of names is anecdotal, rather than scientific. Still, the list has drawn the attention of the state Department of Health.

State officials are working with the UW’s School of Public Health to review the list and compare it to the state’s cancer registry, which includes information on all cancer cases reported in the state.

They want to know whether there’s an increased rate of cancers such as lymphoma and leukemia among soccer players – especially goalkeepers.

“We are looking at this as an investigation,” said Cathy Wasserman, a state epidemiologist. “We want to see if soccer players get cancer more frequently than the general population.”

Griffin notes that a disproportionate number of the athletes with cancer on her list are soccer goalkeepers. That raises even more questions, she said.

“There are only one or two on a team of 20,” she said.

Why goalkeepers? Griffin’s theory is that they spend more time diving into the playing surface and the crumb rubber than players in field positions.

“We get it in our eyes, in our open wounds,” she said. “It smells like a tire factory. I can smell it when I’m down there.”

Wasserman notes that some cancers affect young people more than others. Hodgkin disease, for example, is most common in two age groups: adolescents and young adults, and adults in their 50s.

The Health Department hopes to have its statistical analysis completed by the end of the year. And officials say they are continuing to monitor other research.

Lauren Jenks, director of the Health Department’s Office for Environmental Public Health Sciences, said state health officials have reviewed the studies done on crumb rubber.

“We concluded, looking at the information that’s available, that people are not getting exposed to toxic chemicals while they are playing on the fields,” she said, adding that some substances found in crumb rubber are present in the air.

The hypothesis that young soccer players are being affected by toxic substances from synthetic turf fields is one among many, Wasserman said. Players who get cancer could have other factors in common, such as genetics or other environmental factors. Those need to be explored in more in-depth studies, she said.

Tacoma sticks with crumb rubber, for now

Tacoma Public Schools is spending nearly $2 million this summer to build synthetic turf fields at schools under construction and to refurbish older fields that have reached their expected 10-year life cycle.

Artificial turf fields at Lincoln and Mount Tahoma high schools underwent routine replacement this summer. Stewart Middle School and Wainwright Intermediate School – both under construction this summer – will have new synthetic turf fields when they open. Tacoma’s five comprehensive high schools have artificial turf fields, as do several middle schools and a few elementary schools.

All use crumb rubber infill.

In March, when the School Board was asked to approve expenditures for the summer projects, board member Scott Heinze raised questions about the safety of artificial turf and crumb rubber.

He called Amy Griffin’s information-gathering “compelling,” and said he thinks of it often when his child asks to play on the new turf at his local elementary school.

Steve Murakami, the school district’s chief operating officer, told board members the best information available was that crumb rubber doesn’t pose a significant health risk. He said his department checked with the state health department and others. He said the school district will monitor information that comes out of the new studies.

“As we get more information or future research, if there is a causal link or any scientific data showing a correlation between crumb rubber and public health risks, we will look at adjusting our process and changing up our cycles,” Murakami said.

He told board members that installing alternative infill, like the kind made from plant material or rubber left over from sneaker manufacturing, can cost three to four times as much as crumb rubber. It’s difficult to obtain actual cost estimates for the material. Both installers and the industry representatives say that each job is unique and carries unique expenses.

“I appreciate the due diligence,” Heinze said. “But I don’t want us to be on the wrong side 10 years down the road.”

He said that if it costs more to keep kids healthy, “that’s money well invested.”

Other communities have already made the investment or are thinking about it.

South Kitsap High School debuted its $1.5 million Kitsap Bank Stadium in September 2015. The synthetic turf field, installed by Texas-based Hellas Construction, uses an infill made from a blend of ground coconut husks, cork and rice hulls.

First developed in Italy in 2004, the infill offers an added bonus of lower field temperatures. Hellas says its product requires occasional watering, but uses 90 percent less water than natural grass.

The Eatonville School District promised voters during its most recent bond request that it would avoid crumb rubber and use plant-based alternatives to rebuild its high school football stadium. The measure was defeated in an April election. So for now, Eatonville’s stadium remains natural grass.

In Seattle, the parks department launched a pilot project to replace one of its crumb rubber fields with a new infill product that uses a combination of cork and sand.

Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien was about to install a crumb rubber field in 2014, but changed course after the school principal saw the NBC News report featuring Griffin. The school opted for the ground sneaker infill.

Another option uses acrylic coating to encapsulate the crumb rubber. That’s what went in this summer at an auxiliary field at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

In 2015, Edmonds placed a temporary moratorium on installing new crumb rubber fields.

In this year’s session of the Legislature, state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, and others sponsored legislation that would require artificial turf companies to demonstrate to the Department of Ecology that their product is safe.

On older crumb rubber fields, operators of the facility would have to post signs warning of possible hazards and advising users on ways to minimize exposure.

A committee held a hearing on the bill, but it never came to a full House vote.

New studies begin

With so many questions about crumb rubber being raised – including from members of Congress – the federal government this year began an effort to answer them.

The study involves the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The purpose of the multiagency work is to fill in data gaps, catalog what substances are found in crumb rubber and identify ways in which people might be exposed to it.

By the end of this year, the agencies are scheduled to release a draft report that describes their findings and outlines additional research needs.

In California, environmental health officials are evaluating the health effects of crumb rubber in a major new study.

It aims to identify and quantify the chemicals that might be released from crumb rubber, as well as in the artificial grass blades that have come under fire in the past as possible sources of lead contamination.

In addition to natural rubber, says the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, crumb rubber contains synthetic polymers, carbon black, metals and additives, some of which are known to pose human health risks.

Carbon black, produced by the incomplete burning of petroleum products, is classified as a possible carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. Producers of the material note that the evidence comes mainly from animal rather than human studies.

Other avenues to be explored by California researchers:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is assisting in the three-year California study, scheduled to conclude in 2018.

The Synthetic Turf Council says it welcomes the new research efforts and hopes the new studies will “settle this matter once and for all, put parents’ minds at ease, and validate past and recent due diligence by public officials.”

Doctors often can’t pinpoint the precise cause of cancer in an individual, but suspect a combination of genetics, lifestyle and environmental factors that are not always well understood.

Dr. Archie Bleyer, a longtime researcher in the field of childhood and adolescent cancer and a clinical research professor at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, posted a letter to the public about the crumb rubber controversy in June.

He noted that certain types of cancer in adults can be caused by cumulative exposure over many years to cancer-causing agents such as tobacco, asbestos and other factors.

But in children and adolescents, he wrote, “research has been unable to identify environmental exposures that might explain more than a small fraction of observed cases.”

Instead, he added, researchers conclude that “virtually all cancer in the young is a mistake of nature.”

Bleyer says it’s understandable that families whose children have cancer want something to blame. But, he adds, “the notion that synthetic turf fields cause cancer in the young is another example of the need to attribute blame.”

He says limiting physical activity of young people because of fears over playing fields would cause greater harm to their health.

Why wait?

The UW’s Griffin would like to see crumb rubber disappear, replaced by natural grass fields or artificial turf with organic materials. She notes that some public bodies are waiting until the new studies are complete to make that decision.

“I’m like, ‘Why wait for the study?”‘ she said.

Her Husky players compete on a grass field at home, but their practice field is artificial turf with crumb rubber. She tells her goalkeepers to wear long pants and long sleeves. In an hour’s practice, she says, “it’s crazy how many times they hit the ground.”

Kelly Bendixen has been a soccer coach at the University of Puget Sound for 26 years. He also teaches a summer goalkeeping “academy” for young players who want to up their game. Players hoping to attract the eye of college coaches play on multiple teams, practically year-round, practicing longer than even pro players, Bendixen said.

Luke Beardemphl was one of his former academy students. And over the past decade or so, he’s watched eight others be diagnosed with cancer. Of the nine, eight were goalkeepers.

“I didn’t get into this sport to go to funerals,” Bendixen said. “I got into it to help kids and enhance lives.”

He says he’s not against synthetic turf.

“Can you just give us the information? Does it or does it not cause cancer?” he asks.

Luke Beardemphl’s parents still wear the yellow “Lukestrong” plastic bracelets his family and friends embraced as a symbol of his seven-year battle with the disease. That battle included three transplants – one bone marrow and two stem cell transplants – as well as so many rounds of chemotherapy that the family lost count.

Stephanie, Mike and Luke’s two younger siblings kept watch as the boy they knew as a powerful athlete grew weaker and weaker over time. But Luke never lost heart, his mother said.

On and off the field, Mike Beardemphl added, “Luke was a driven kid. Never once did he complain about anything.”

His illness, diagnosed shortly after graduation from Stadium High, forced him to give up a soccer scholarship to a college in Hawaii.

But he powered through treatments and enrolled for a semester at Whitworth University in Spokane, then at Highline Community College, where he was able to return briefly to the beloved sport that had possessed him since he was 10.

“Even though living (with cancer) was hard,” Stephanie Beardemphl said, “he lived, and he lived hard.”

For her, the numbers of sick and dying athletes point to something more than a coincidence. She wants action on the issue of crumb rubber “sooner rather than later.”

Her husband believes public agencies should start using alternatives to crumb rubber now.

“The way I look at these fields – yes, they’re a great product,” he said. “It will take incredible scientific proof before you can get them out of here.”