Rubber Stamped?

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In case you missed it, the State of California and the feds are investigating whether artificial turf is safe. For those not in the know, many versions of turf use thousands if not millions of tiny little rubber balls (from recycled tires) to create a grass-like bounce and cushion. Arguably, these little pellets are carcinogens that may be dangerous both to skin-contact and if inhaled.

They are also a pain when they get in your cleats and you track them into the house. However, the State of California has already investigated rubber ball turf (my fav moniker) twice. Here are the results.

Most of the fuss revolves around a 2006 unpublished Rutgers study. That study concluded that there are probably six PAHs that are carcinogenic at a level beyond what is deemed safe by the State of New York. Most of the other studies look at workers in rubber factories that make rubber pellets: their rate of exposure would pretty clearly be different from a kid or adult training twice a week and playing one game a week on a turf field.

Still, the most convincing evidence of the safety of turf comes from California. The state subcontracted with an outside company in 2007 and 2010 to evaluate the safety of turf. Amid budget cuts, the state and lots of school districts were looking at ways to keep playgrounds safe while reducing costs. If you are a legal nerd, which many of you are, then you can read the full reports here.

Neither study ringed any alarm bells. However, a few caveats. First, we don’t know about long-term and repeated exposure to these fields because they have not been in existence for, say, decades. Second, both studies include the qualifier that the fields are not dangerous “compared to other cancer risks.” The US is a great place to live if you want to die in a car accident, a gun-related incident, or from cancer. For years, our high cancer rates have puzzled the best scientists.

Here are some ideas. First, the water situation in Flint shows how government agencies can fail to protect us from obvious risks due to inertia, incompetence, and agency capture. Second, in the US food and drugs have to be regularly tested before being approved, but chemicals are presumed safe and legal until proven otherwise. Just as synthetic drugmakers can tweak a product around constantly rewritten state laws, manufacturers of chemicals can tweak compounds once a substance is banned.

Thus, California conducting a third study and the feds getting involved makes some sense, but the inability to trust in either actor to protect and uncertainty are the most troubling. So long as new substances are presumed legal and the health standard is “not as cancerous as worse stuff”, stay vigilant. And stick to grass.

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