Justin Lewis celebrates on his high school soccer field in Stratford. Courtesy of Justin Lewis
Justin Lewis when he was undergoing chemotherapy.
Justin Lewis when he was undergoing chemotherapy. Courtesy of Justin Lewis

Susan Lewis’s soccer-adoring son Justin was already through his chemo and radiation treatments for lymphoma and thinking about getting back to his team at Fairfield University when she caught a television report one morning.

“There was a story about a soccer player,” she said. “I stopped to watch it, and my mouth dropped open.”

The report was about cancer cases among athletes playing on artificial turf made from ground-up used tires – crumb rubber is what it’s called. Some soccer players in particular had been diagnosed, mostly with lymphoma as well as leukemia. The question posed was whether the crumb rubber was the cause.

“Obviously, as parents of this young man, we wanted to understand why or how this could possibly happen,” she said. The first focus had to be on getting Justin better. “But when that came up, I certainly thought, ‘Wow, could that be the answer?’”

Justin, now off an excellent comeback season and with his hair regrown after treatment, was understated. “Obviously I was pretty interested,” he said. “My mom jumped on it.”

What Susan didn’t know was that she was also jumping into an escalating controversy over the safety of crumb rubber and that her home state of Connecticut was right in the middle.

Let’s be clear – as of now no study has shown a definitive link between playing on crumb rubber and any illness.

But official receptivity to doing further research has been growing in recent months, and Friday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it is launching a federally coordinated action plan to study crumb rubber turf fields and playgrounds. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will be part of the effort. Initial results are promised by the end of 2016.

The EPA and CPSC had already modified earlier stances on crumb rubber’s safety and had endorsed additional testing, and, most notably, the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) had quietly clarified an oft-cited 2010 study on it.

The study was conducted by DPH, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the University of Connecticut. It was vetted by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering and has served as evidence of crumb rubber’s safety for industry groups and other advocates of its use.

DPH officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but a statement emailed by a DPH spokesman acknowledged the concerns about crumb rubber. The statement said in part that these concerns “raise important questions about the safety of these fields and suggest more comprehensive study is warranted.

“The 2010 risk assessment of five artificial turf fields in Connecticut does not provide conclusive evidence about the safety of artificial turf fields. Like all scientific studies, Connecticut’s assessment had limitations. For example, it did not specifically evaluate the risks from dermal exposure or ingestion of the crumb rubber. The data are from a small number of fields and days of sampling.”

That sentiment, as of late 2015, is reflected on the DPH’s own crumb-rubber fact sheet.

All of this has occurred against the backdrop of a relentless barrage from the New Haven-based advocacy group Environment and Human Health Inc. (EHHI), which has been warning of potential health threats from the fields.

“This failure of government has failed an entire generation of children,” said Nancy Alderman, EHHI’s president. “An entire generation.”

A near-perfect playing surface

It’s well-known that tires contain a host of chemicals and compounds. Getting rid of used tires has been an environmental conundrum for generations.

In the 1990s, the idea of recycling them by making the rubber portions into crumb-sized pellets was developed – and a major use for the pellets became the so-called infill for artificial athletic fields. The pellets, or crumb, were essentially poured into the fake grass to provide padding that was far superior to earlier incarnations of artificial turf. The playing surface it provided, by all accounts, was surpassed only by extremely well-groomed natural grass.

“You can basically judge where the ball’s going to go if it bounces. It doesn’t hit a hole or a ditch or a bad patch. You just know where it’s going to go because it’s all flat,” said Justin. He started playing soccer when he was 5 or 6 – first on grass, then on turf, beginning when he was 14 or 15 as a player at Bunnell High School in Stratford.

His lament about it was the same as everyone’s – that the crumb gets all over everything. “Ugh,” he groans – the most common response to the question. “My mom will tell you. I come home, take my shoes off and my socks. It just pops out – the crumb is everywhere. Pain in the butt to clean up.”

It also got very hot. A 90-degree day can push the field temperature to more than 140 degrees. Members of Bunnell’s football team got burns during a practice last summer.

Justin said he gets blisters on his feet from it. His friend Joe Martin, a goalkeeper on the Fairfield University team, which plays its home games on grass but practices on crumb rubber, said summer is bad, especially when you’re out of breath.

“The smell of turf burning in the sun,” he said, referencing a common summertime complaint about its odor. “It just feels like you’re inhaling fumes.”

For many municipalities, though, crumb rubber seems like a no-brainer. Aside from a way to keep old tires out of landfills, it requires zero water and little maintenance. Drainage is excellent, so there are no muddy fields or hard-frozen ones. And it enables fields to be used around the clock, unlike grass, which requires resting, reseeding and other forms of TLC.

That in turn means more kids can play more different sports more frequently, making the high upfront price of nearly $1 million per field cost-effective in the long run.

It also solves the problem of dealing with the state’s pesticide ban for municipal fields, day-care centers and school fields serving kindergarten through eighth grade. High schools do not have a pesticide ban, but many think it’s just a matter of time.

There are an estimated 12,000 crumb rubber fields in the U.S. Dozens have been installed in Connecticut since the first one in the late 1990s – many built using state bond funds to pay all or part of the cost. There are school fields, municipal fields, playgrounds and private fields. Most are outdoors. Some are in.

Compiling a list

It took an associate women’s soccer coach at the University of Washington named Amy Griffin to push the concern about crumb rubber into the public consciousness.

Griffin started noticing cases of cancer among soccer players, especially goalkeepers. So she began a list. She knows it’s not scientific – it’s people who contact her. But it now has more than 200 athletes on it. More than three-quarters are soccer players and about two-thirds of them are goalkeepers. Most of the cancers reported are lymphomas, Justin’s among them.

Crumb rubber infill
Crumb rubber infill Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMirror.org

“My point was I wanted his story to be part of it,” said Susan Lewis, who contacted Griffin. “If there was evidence, I just wanted him to add to that evidence because, if we can do something to prevent another child and another family from going through what we went through, I would absolutely want to be a part of that.”

The questions raised about crumb rubber that arguably resulted in Friday’s announcement by the EPA have also brought hard pushback from the artificial turf industry. It points to many studies over the years that have shown no elevated health risk from the fields.

“The best available evidence out there indicates that there really aren’t concerns related to health effects from chemical exposures in turf,” said Michael Peterson, a toxicologist with the environmental health and risk science consulting firm Gradient who has been retained by the Recycled Rubber Council as a scientific advisor. His views are echoed by the Safe Fields Alliance – representing the top three turf manufacturers, and the Synthetic Turf Council – the trade association for the artificial turf industry.

“There are dozens of peer-reviewed studies; there’s multiple state health agencies that have looked at this,” Peterson said. “It actually kind of surprised me how consistent all of the findings were: A bunch of different investigators have looked at this, and they all seem to come up with the same conclusion.”

He agreed that no single study has comprehensively looked at crumb rubber. “But the collection of them as a whole,” he said, “they’ve looked at ingestion; they’ve looked at inhalation; they’ve looked at runoff; they’ve looked at dermal exposure. And when you look at it that way, it seems to be a pretty complete database.”

“Exhibit A” is almost always Connecticut’s 2010 study.

Revisions and clarifications

Connecticut tested five fields – four outdoor, one indoor – looking for what might run off them and what chemicals might be emitted as gases – off-gassing is the operative term. Generally the results showed some zinc runoff, which was expected. But the emissions found were low, though somewhat higher on the indoor field. The conclusion was: “The use of outdoor and indoor artificial turf fields is not associated with elevated health risks. However, it would be prudent for building operators to provide adequate ventilation.”

That finding was reaffirmed in January 2015, after a television report by NBC news – the one Susan Lewis saw: “The current news reports of a list of soccer players with cancer does not constitute a correlation or causality and thus raises a concern that currently lacks scientific support,” said a two-page letter DPH sent to all local health departments in Connecticut. “Thus, the CT DPH position expressed in 2011 at the conclusion of the Connecticut study, that outdoor artificial turf fields do not represent an elevated health risk, remains unchanged.”

DPH’s recent revision of that position followed similar action by the EPA and CPSC. Both essentially said that previous studies that showed no elevated health risk from crumb rubber could not be considered comprehensive enough to answer new questions about the fields’ safety. Both agencies said they would be assisting a study just underway by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Results from that study are not expected until 2018. The new federal action plan will access information from that study.

The EPA revised its position in November 2015. The CPSC began doing so in September. The CPSC has since issued a series of statements endorsing further research and has requested $1 million as part of its budget to do some additional testing. Some of Commissioner Elliot Kaye’s statements were in response to a letter from Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla.

The senators were asking for assurances that any study would be independent, noting that the California agency that requested its study oversees recycling, including tires. Last month Blumenthal and Nelson followed up with a letter to President Obama requesting a federal study coordinated through the CPSC, EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Crumb rubber infill shows through a bare spot in a synthetic turf field.
Crumb rubber infill shows through a bare spot in a synthetic turf field. Jan Ellen Spiegel / CTMirror.org

Today Blumenthal called the announcement of the new coordinated federal action plan “a very profoundly important next step. No, it’s not the end of the work that needs to be done.”

He had contended that California’s study was not independent enough. “This will be an independent, authoritative and objective study,” he said. “Not only will there be the perception of independence but the reality of independence.”

Of the Connecticut health department’s shift in position, he said: “Well that’s interesting. Fairly terse but a potentially significant endorsement of the need for additional fact-finding and independent assessment.”

Gaboury Benoit, an environmental chemist at Yale, may be providing one of the first steps down that path. He is just finishing what he believes is the most comprehensive determination of what’s in crumb rubber.

It’s a devilish task since tires from different companies and for different purposes have varying ingredients. Ground up together for crumb rubber, chemical compositions can vary tremendously.

While still incomplete and unpublished, Benoit said he has found nearly 100 compounds, about half of which have been studied for health risks. Within the studied half, about a quarter are known carcinogens and another 40 percent are known irritants, he said.

“It’s a reconnaissance,” he said. “We wanted to have the very first piece of information – so do things as simply as possible, and then it gives you kind of a lay-of-the-land and thoughts about what you want to study next.”

Others, including the Recycled Rubber Council’s Peterson, have criticized Benoit’s work, which was funded through a grant secured by EHHI, for the samples of new crumb rubber it used, its laboratory technique, which Peterson said was “not a relevant exposure scenario of what happens in real world,” and its lack of information on the concentration of the compounds.

“Just the presence of a chemical doesn’t tell us much from a toxicology or a risk-assessment perspective,” Peterson said.

But Benoit said that was not the point. Looking at how heat, for instance, changes the substances in crumb rubber, or conducting field-based studies would be next steps.

David Brown, a toxicologist who now works with EHHI, agrees.

“The industry is out there saying ‘all of the science is done; we have tons of data; there are thousands of papers showing that this stuff is safe;’ and we look at the papers and we say, ‘What’re you talking about? You don’t know what’s in it,’” Brown said. “You haven’t taken step one. You couldn’t have papers showing it’s safe because you don’t know what IT is.”

Brown, who is also formerly with the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the Connecticut public health department as director of the environmental, occupational and environmental health section, also contends sample sizes in existing studies were too small. There’s no information on how the cocktail of compounds in crumb rubber may interact, nor has there been a genuine study of long-term exposure.

The goalkeeper cancer cases in particular are raising questions about whether research should focus more on the types of contacts they have with the field: diving into the ground; slides that can get crumb in their mouths, eyes and hair; a greater chance of turf burns or wounds that crumb can get into; and their general play closer to ground level.

“If we saw five cancers in soccer players when I was there,” Brown said of his time at DPH, “it would have been all hands on deck.”

‘Relying on what we know’

Since the late 1990s, the Cheshire-based engineering and planning consultant firm Milone and MacBroom has overseen the installation of dozens of athletic fields – many, if not most, crumb rubber.

As environmental consultants they have done their own runoff testing and looked to the many crumb rubber studies, Connecticut’s in particular, to support their contention the fields are safe.

Justin Lewis celebrates on his high school soccer field in Stratford.
Justin Lewis celebrates on his high school soccer field in Stratford. Courtesy of Justin Lewis

“There’s no denying what’s in the rubber,” said Vince McDermott, a senior vice president. “The question that needs to be addressed is, are those compounds being released into the environment in a way that elevates the risk.”

McDermott has heard all the arguments against crumb rubber and at zoning board and other community meetings contended with Alderman of EHHI over installation of the fields. Along with many other studies, links to the 2010 Connecticut study and the January 2015 reaffirmation are still on the company website, but not DPH’s latest assessment.

“Until the studies, the new data, if there is new data, comes and tells us differently, I think we’re relying on what we know,” he said. “Until we see to the contrary, we’ll say this is OK.

“I coached soccer for years – my son was a fairly elite player. I would let him play in a heartbeat based on what I now know.”

But since 2007 or so, the company is finding that clients are not comfortable with the unknowns of crumb rubber risk, and so Milone routinely offers pricing for new infill products – some made from coconut or rice husks, cork, coated sand or some combination of them.

And even with a 25 to 30 percent additional cost and the need for more maintenance – like watering cork-based infill – communities are beginning to opt for the alternatives, even as they balance the crumb rubber concern against equally nettlesome safety and concussion concerns.

“We were trying to alleviate the fears of the (town) council and eliminate the controversy,” said Matthew Galligan, town manager of South Windsor, which opted for a sand infill for the high school field completed in November. It cost an extra $45,000. “For the extra amount of money it wasn’t worth me getting into the controversy. We needed to protect the kids and needed to take the path of least resistance.”

Monroe is considering non-crumb rubber infills as it decides what to replace Masuk High School’s field with, said James Agostine, the school superintendent. “It takes away the whole issue of whether or not crumb rubber has issues or not,” Agostine said. “My feeling is it’s very clear there are carcinogens in crumb rubber. Clearly we want to be prudent here.”

Hartford bans crumb rubber

Hartford has gone a step further. In the first update of its zoning regulations in 50 years, the city has banned crumb rubber and petroleum-based artificial turf.

“In a dense urban environment like Hartford, any negative environmental and public health effects of synthetic infill could be magnified.  So the uncertainties about these effects weighed heavily on our decision,” said Sara Bronin, a zoning board commissioner appointed in 2014 by then-Mayor Pedro Segarra. She is also director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Law at UConn Law School.

“Rather than permitting synthetic infill and hoping for the best, we want for the science to show that these materials are safe before we permit them in Hartford,” she said.

But other communities, including Plainville, Stonington and Seymour, all of which recently installed artificial turf fields, chose crumb rubber over the newer alternatives. Some cited the cost; some cited the lack of a track record for the alternatives; but all essentially said crumb rubber was innocent until proven guilty.

“Based on what we know today, they’re safe, and if they’re not, we’ll have to make an adjustment,” said Plainville Town Manager Robert Lee, who acknowledged that the town was aware of the calls for further study.

In Seymour, Nicole Klarides-Ditria, chair of the Seymour turf project as well as a Republican candidate for the House, said she’s familiar with crumb rubber through her job as an athletic trainer. She’s comfortable having her own son play football on it.

“It’s every parent’s decision whether they want kids to play on it. But if they don’t,” she said, “then you should only eat organic food, never put pesticides on your lawn at home, and with pollutants in the air, you should be living in a bubble.”

Decision time in Hamden

Right now, nowhere is the crumb rubber controversy playing out more publicly than in Hamden. The town, which has had a crumb rubber multi-sport field for 13 years at the high school, is in the final throes of approving a new one for baseball.

“Tires are toxic – can’t argue that,” said James Pascarella, Town Council president and until recently an assistant football coach.

“We’ll go with what the science of the day is,” he said. ”If it came back ‘holy cow’ – if it’s really bad, we would move 1,000 miles an hour and remove it.”

But, he said, there’s not much of a track record on the new products. “What,” he asked, “do we do in the meantime?”

There is legislation filed by the state legislature’s Committee on Children to ban crumb rubber fields. Though it is generally viewed as a non-starter, it is among the bills scheduled for a public hearing by the committee on Tuesday. Failing a ban, EHHI wants the state to stop allowing the use of bond funds to pay for crumb rubber fields.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, Jr., D-Branford, who as co-chair of the Environment Committee and a member of the Public Health Committee, would probably deal with any legislation related to the fields, is blunt.

“I am not in favor of the fields,” he said. “I think that that issue is alive, and I think the environment committee, if there was enough support to hold a hearing, I think would be inclined to do so.”

Rep. Vin Candelora, R-North Branford, who serves on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding and Public Health committees, has had at least one discussion about the bonding approach. “Frankly with the economy, the state has started to pull back form funding those types of things.”

All three of his children, from high school down to sixth grade, play on the crumb rubber, he said. “Certainly it’s in the back of everybody’s mind,” he said. “Our kids shower after all their games. There’s little things that you try to do to try to make sure your children are safe.”

Some would like to see the CPSC designate certain crumb rubber products as child products to make them subject to more stringent health regulation.

Nicole Potter in 2013, just before she was diagnosed with leukemia
Nicole Potter in 2013, just before she was diagnosed with leukemia Courtesy of Lynda Potter

Nicole Potter will probably never know if that would have changed her life.

In 2013 at the age of 23 she developed an acute form of leukemia. She’d played soccer since she was 4 or 5 years old, much of the time as a goalkeeper and on crumb rubber artificial turf for a combination of teams, including travel leagues, indoor leagues and Daniel Hand High School in Madison, where she grew up.

Potter never knew about the recycled-tire controversy until she was through her six months of treatment. She’s in remission and scheduled to finish maintenance chemo next month. She will never be allowed to play contact sports – including soccer – again.

If there turns out to be a link between her illness and the fields she played on, “I’ll be really pissed,” she said.

Her mother Lynda Potter was a bit more forgiving. “I’d be upset,” she said. “Nobody did it with the intention of harming anybody. It’s not … a ‘what did you do to my child?’ kind of thing.”

Nicole isn’t sure a moratorium on new fields would be the way to go. Testing yes – but the right testing.

Joe Martin, the Fairfield goalkeeper, said he now keeps his arms and legs covered during practice to prevent turf burns. If he has to dive for the ball, he tries not to stay down too long. “I get straight back up,” he said. “In the past when you dive, you’re already on the floor and you stick your head in the turf and take a minute to compose yourself. I don’t really do that anymore.”

Justin Lewis admits he prefers not to dwell on what research may or may not eventually turn up on crumb rubber. “I knew I wanted to play again,” he said. “That’s all I thought about when I was sick – ‘I want to play. I want to play.’

“I didn’t want to go back worrying about where I’m playing, like what happens if I play here again.”

His mother Susan said he needs to live his life under his terms, but if she were calling the shots about whether he should play, “I’m not so sure I would let him,” she said.

In the meantime, she thinks there should be no more crumb rubber fields until science knows more. “I think that we owe it to the youth of soccer and other sports to investigate.”

This story was updated at 1:25 p.m. to include an EPA announcement of a new federally coordinated study of crumb rubber fields.

Jan Ellen is CT Mirror's regular freelance Environment and Energy Reporter. As a freelance reporter, her stories have also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Yale Climate Connections, and elsewhere. She is a former editor at The Hartford Courant, where she handled national politics including coverage of the controversial 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. She was an editor at the Gazette in Colorado Springs and spent more than 20 years as a TV and radio producer at CBS News and CNN in New York and in the Boston broadcast market. In 2013 she was the recipient of a Knight Journalism Fellowship at MIT on energy and climate. She graduated from the University of Michigan and attended Boston University’s graduate film program.

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