The world is a bit terrifying right now. Between computer-savvy creepers hacking into our kids’ V-tech accounts, regular bombings around the world, and the fact that there’s no piece of duct tape big enough to cover Donald Trump’s face-hole, things just seem a bit out of control. Yes, we are dealing with some scary stuff. In the face of such threats, something like a little crumb rubber seems like a pretty minor issue. But what if it’s not?
For those uninitiated into the world of playground and athletic surfaces (who should obviously feel intense shame for not paying attention to such a fascinating topic), crumb rubber is that spongy surface at the bottom of the slide your kid just went down. It’s also the stuff underneath the artificial turf in the new soccer dome that opened just down the street. Crumb rubber and its close relative—poured rubber— are made of raw rubber particles, which usually come from recycled tires. Orthopedists like the rubber because it provides more cushioning for athletes than old-school artificial turf. Schools and communities like it because it requires less maintenance than real-life grass. Coaches like it because it extends the playing season and eliminates inconsistencies in the field of play.
And as a parent, I’ve always liked it, too. What a cool idea! I thought the first time I encountered the stuff at our neighborhood park. It seemed much more practical than the sand and pea gravel I was constantly emptying out of my kids’ shoes, and more sustainable than the mulch our city was forever having to dump and spread. It looked clean, and it felt good under my feet. Plus, I loved the idea of recycling tires for a positive use, rather than allowing them to linger for eons in landfills.
But as we often tend to do with new products and ideas, it seems we may have gotten ahead of ourselves with the crumb rubber craze. Over the past few years, parent groups have started raising concerns about the safety of crumb rubber. Sure, the surface provides their kids with more cushioning, thus leading to fewer injuries, but parents worry it may also be exposing their kids to carcinogens and toxins.
The concern stems from an October 2014 NBC News report (pre-bizarre Brian Williams meltdown) about an unusually high number of soccer goalkeepers who developed cancer after repeated, long-term contact with crumb rubber playing fields. The report offered no scientific evidence proving the rubber was emitting dangerous toxins into the air or water, but parents and lawmakers were concerned, nonetheless.
Over a year later, parents continue to demand answers, some states and communities have halted installation of new crumb rubber playing surfaces, and doctors and lawmakers are calling for independent studies on the safety of the rubber. Because—to the frustration of everyone who cares about the health and safety of our children and our planet—the studies published thus far on the topic have offered mixed results.
For instance, researchers in a 2007 Connecticut study stated:
“(The) study conclusively demonstrates that the tire crumbs and tire mulch release chemical compounds into the air and ground water. Thus, tire crumbs constitute a chemical exposure for humans and the environment.”
But authors of a 2010 study from that same state concluded:
“…outdoor and indoor artificial turf fields are not associated with elevated health risks from the inhalation of volatile or particle-bound chemicals.”
So the scientists, synthetic turf companies, coaches and community members will continue to hash out the controversy and continue their back-and-forth bickering about who’s really protecting our kids.
And amid all of it, my son carries on with his first season of indoor soccer played on a crumb rubber field. At this age, the teams don’t even have goalkeepers, but that doesn’t stop my son from rolling around on the ground in dramatic fashion after taking unnecessary dives. Plus, his little brother typically entertains himself during practice by lying full out on the crumb rubber and playing with his action figures (which, let’s face it, are probably also made of weird, toxic chemicals). In other words, they’ve definitely been exposed.
So what can I do?
I don’t want to be an alarmist, or spend my life fighting imaginary threats. After all, nothing infuriates me more than the “VACCINES CAUSE AUTISM!” argument still maintained by caregivers in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
So here’s my plan: Until the day when either 1) somebody proves that the crumb rubber surface is totally (or even mostly) safe or 2) my community finds an alternative to crumb rubber, I’ve decided to accept the risks, and I’ll let my son continue to play. But I will also take some precautions to minimize the danger, like shaking the rubber pieces from our clothes and bags before leaving the field, keeping cuts and scrapes clean and covered, and having my kids bathe after contact with the field (which they’ll just love). And, of course, I’ll suggest they avoid eating the rubber. (It’s amazing what a 7-year-old boy is willing to put in his mouth).
Then I’ll wrap them in bubble wrap, lock them in their rooms with their hypoallergenic pets for company, and feed them vegan, organic food on BPA-free dishware. Obviously.
- EPA Misses Congressional Deadline for Artificial Turf Safety Response (Forbes)
- Everett Okay With Crumb Rubber Fields (MyEverettNews.com)
- Parents, Athletes Sound Alarm Over Potentially Toxic Artifical Turf Playing Fields (Healthline News)