State-led study: No link between sports-field rubber, cancer

EDMONDS — There’s no evidence that playing on crumb rubber sports fields has caused soccer players to get cancer, state health officials said Wednesday — a finding that’s unlikely to settle the ongoing controversy over the safety of artificial turf fields.

“We’re recommending that people who enjoy soccer continue to play soccer regardless of the type of surface,” said Cathy Wasserman, state epidemiologist for noninfectious disease for the state Department of Health.

Health officials acknowledged that a study they conducted about the issue was limited in scope. “Our investigation is one piece,” Wasserman said. It was a comparison of cancer rates among soccer players with cancer rates among people in the same age group in Washington.

A separate national study is now under way looking at issues such as the toxicity of crumb rubber and exposure to it, she said. The state agency will continue to monitor studies on the safety of the fields, Wasserman said.

In the meantime, “we’re not seeing the crumb rubber is causing a public health concern,” said Lauren Jenks, who directs the state health department’s office of environmental public health sciences.

“It’s reasonable to install crumb rubber fields,” she said.

It is an issue that has drawn angst in Edmonds and other communities in the region in recent years.

The padding in the crumb rubber fields is made from ground-up used tires. Opponents of crumb rubber sports fields point to a list of hazardous chemicals in tires, including heavy metals and substances linked to cancer.

The state health department decided to undertake its study after Amy Griffin, a University of Washington soccer coach, compiled a list of 53 people who played on the artificial turf and who were later diagnosed with cancer, such as leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The state study examined a subset of this group, 27 people between 6 to 24 years old who were diagnosed with cancer during the years 2002 to 2015.

One of the cases was that of Austen Everett, who trained with Griffin, the UW soccer coach. Everett was a goalkeeper for Seattle’s Bishop Blanchet High School and played on teams at the University of California Santa Barbara and the University of Miami in Florida. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma as a college junior in 2008. She died four years later when she was 25.

On Tuesday evening, state health officials met with some of the families involved in the study, including Everett’s mother, June Leahy, of Seattle, to present their findings.

Leahy said she has always believed that crumb rubber played a role in her daughter’s cancer and the results of the study didn’t change that.

“To say I am disappointed is an understatement,” she said. “We’re all hopeful that the tire crumb will get the intense scrutiny it deserves.”

That would include examining the material content and toxins in the crumb rubber; how the materials break down; the particles and dust created by the fields; the gasses created by crumb rubber; ingestion of the tiny rubber particles and skin contact, she said.

“Those are the issues that should have been included in a study like this,” Leahy said.

A national investigation of the possible health effects of playing on crumb rubber fields is now under way, conducted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Consumer Product Safety Commission. An update on the study was posted in December, but it said a final conclusion won’t be reached until later this year.

The first synthetic turf fields were installed in the 1960s. Currently, there are up to 13,000 synthetic turf sports fields nationally, with 1,200 to 1,500 new installations each year, according to the December report.

State health officials said that precautions that have been advised in the past when playing on crumb rubber fields should continue to minimize potential exposure to the field’s chemicals.

They include: always washing hands after playing on the field and before eating; taking off shoes, sports equipment and uniforms outside or in the garage to prevent tracking crumb rubber into the house; showering after play; quickly cleaning any cuts or scrapes to help prevent infection and not swallowing any bits of crumb rubber they come into contact with during play.

In Snohomish County, opposition to crumb rubber athletic fields has been greatest in Edmonds. It was triggered by a $4.2 million Edmonds School District project to construct two synthetic turf athletic fields at the former Woodway High School. The fields opened in the fall of 2015.

A few months later, the Edmonds City Council approved a ban on the installation of synthetic turf play fields made from crumb rubber on any publicly owned athletic field until July 11. The action covers school district-owned properties.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486;

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