As of October 2022, the majority of U.S. high school football fields used artificial turf made with plastic grass and “rubber pellets” made from tires, known to contain multiple chemicals and heavy metals, including mercury, lead, benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and arsenic.
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The recent deaths of six Philadephia Phillies baseball players from the same rare and aggressive form of brain cancer sparked an investigative report by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The investigation led to the discovery of toxic PFAS chemicals — also known as “forever chemicals” — in the Monsanto-made synthetic astroturf installed at the old Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia during the time the athletes played there.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of hazardous synthetic compounds widely called “forever chemicals” because they persist in people’s bodies and the environment for years on end.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s team — including investigative reporters Barbara Laker and David Gambacorta — bought samples of the fake grass that blanketed the stadium fields during the era when the players played on it and tested the samples.
Eurofins Lancaster Laboratories Environmental Testing found two turf samples contained 16 different types of PFAS. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame tested two other samples and also found PFAS.
The presence of the forever chemicals could potentially be linked to cancer that took the six players lives, Laker and Gambacorta said.
In an interview with award-winning journalist and author David Sirota, Laker said multiple studies — “two in China and one, I believe, in Italy” — indicated PFAS were able to cross the blood-brain barrier, and that the chemicals were found “not only in the brain but actually in brain tumors.”
Laker told Sirota that Graham Peaslee, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Notre Dame who studies PFAS and is “one of the world-renowned experts on this,” asserts that once PFAS chemicals are in your body, they go all through the body and stay there for years — that’s why they’re called forever chemicals.
Sirota — founder and editor of the investigative news outlet The Lever and columnist for The Guardian — said he recalled going to the Veterans Stadium as a child when kids were permitted to watch July 4th fireworks while on the field and realizing, “Wow, this stuff that looks all green and kind of nice on TV and nice from the stands is actually incredibly awful.”
Commenting on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s investigation, Sirota said:
“This is about how corporations and politicians allowed the proliferation of toxic chemicals into nearly every corner of American life and into all of our bodies, potentially poisoning entire generations.”
What about kids’ playgrounds and high school athletic fields?
Most professional sports stadiums have transitioned back to using grass, Sirota said.
As of April 20, 2023, only four National Football League (NFL) stadiums have slit film turf — a type of synthetic turf — and NFL Players Association president JC Tretter recently asked the NFL for an immediate ban of artificial turf. In a letter published on the NFL Players Association website, Tretter said injury rates on natural grass were lower over an eight-year period from 2012-2020.
However, the use of artificial turf for younger athletes’ fields and children’s playgrounds has increased dramatically over time, according to the National Center for Health Research (NCHR), a nonprofit that “conducts, analyzes, and explains the latest research.”
Synthetic materials — such as recycled rubber tires — have become one of the “top choice materials” for surfacing children’s playgrounds, said NCHR. “In 2019, approximately 290 million tires were discarded, of which approximately 12% were processed for sports fields and playground surfaces.”
As of October 2022, the majority of U.S. high school football fields used artificial turf made with plastic grass and “rubber pellets” to absorb impact. Commonly called “crumb rubber,” the artificial turf substance is difficult to research because of the variety of materials used.
Tens of thousands of different tires from different brands could be used to surface one field, according to an NBC News investigative report.
Multiple chemicals and heavy metals — including mercury, lead, benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and arsenic — have been found in tires, NBC added.
‘They know it’s dangerous, but they don’t care because they’re making a lot of money’
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2016 joined with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and Consumer Product and Safety Commission to research the crumb rubber used in artificial turfs and playgrounds.
In their 2019 final report they said, “Many chemicals were found to be associated with tire crumb rubber collected from tire recycling plants and tire crumb rubber infill collected from fields across the United States, including a range of metals, PAHs [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], phthalates and other tire rubber related chemicals.”
However, the EPA said the report was not a risk assessment and did not assess the potential impact of tire crumb on children’s health.
NCHR criticized the EPA’s research, saying that “the EPA website for the report downplays the risks and seems aimed at reassuring the public rather than providing an objective summary.”
NCHR pointed out that many other studies have tested playground surfaces made from tire waste and found a vast array of toxic chemicals.
For instance, a 2018 Yale study detected 92 chemicals in samples of tire crumbs from different companies that install school athletic fields and in samples from “rubber mulch intended for household use.”
“Caution would argue against use of these materials where human exposure is likely, and this is especially true for playgrounds and athletic playing fields where young people may be affected.”
Moreover, a large team of researchers from Yale and the National Toxicology Program for the National Institutes of Health in 2019 identified 306 chemicals found in crumb rubber, of which 52 were classified as carcinogens by the EPA and/or the European Chemicals Agency.
There is no federal legislation banning the use of these products, however, some states have taken action.
The California Assembly on April 18 approved a measure that, if signed into law, would ban the manufacturing and sale of artificial turf containing PFAS.
Cities in Washington, Connecticut, California, Minnesota and Maryland have proposed or enacted bans on crumb rubber or artificial turfs for playgrounds and fields, the Children’s Environmental Health Network said.
Meanwhile, the artificial turf industry “is poised for significant growth, as projections indicate substantial expansion and revenue generation by 2030,” according to a March 17 MarketWatch report.
Kyla Bennett, director of science policy at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility told GBH News the turf industry is “fighting as hard as they can to make this stuff as long as they can.”
Synthetic Turf Council — an industry group representing artificial turf companies — in 2018 spent $80,000 on lobbying. More recent figures are unknown, according to OpenSecrets.
Bennett, a scientist and former EPA lawyer said, “They know it’s dangerous, but they don’t care because they’re making a lot of money.”
Suzanne Burdick, Ph.D., is a reporter and researcher for The Defender based in Fairfield, Iowa. She holds a Ph.D. in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin (2021), and a master's degree in communication and leadership from Gonzaga University (2015). Her scholarship has been published in Health Communication. She has taught at various academic institutions in the United States and is fluent in Spanish.
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