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Artificial turf – friend or foe?

Glen Eden v Drury - Chatham Cup

The New Zealand Herald ran an article yesterday about a perceived link between artificial sports turf and increased risk of cancer – especially for football goalkeepers. It quoted people who point the finger of blame at high exposure to the rubber ‘dirt’, made from recycled tyres, that is spread across pitches to “improve the natural bounce of the ball”. The piece was originally run in the UK’s ‘Daily Mail’ newspaper.

My usual default position is to take anything associated with the Daily Mail with a pretty huge pinch of salt, and I assume that’s most other peoples’ too. But just in case it isn’t yours, I thought I might look into this one a bit more closely to see if the article is scaring people unnecessarily, or if on the contrary we should be worried…

The article starts off rather menacingly. It throws some bad sounding chemicals at you…

“Fears have been raised that rubber substances made from old tires used in 3G surfaces contain toxic chemicals including mercury, lead, benzene and arsenic.”

Note the careful choice of words though. It doesn’t say that tyre rubber contains these chemicals. It says that “fears have been raised” that it does. Is there any proof that it does? The article doesn’t say.

The substance of the article is partly based on a grieving mother’s statement that she “has no doubt” that her daughter’s love of football caused her tragic death. It’s terribly sad when any young person loses their life, but in my opinion it’s even worse when the media uses a family’s grief for sensationalised headlines. While I have no doubt that Mrs Leahy is sincere in her belief that her daughter’s cancer was caused by a football pitch, there is no proof offered that that is in fact the case.

The article also cites ‘research’ by a University of Washington coach. You might be forgiven for seeing “University of Washington” and thinking ‘Professor with big pointy forehead that wears a white coat and works in a lab’ but that would be to ignore the word “coach”…

This coach has found more than 166 cases of footballers, of whom 66% were goalkeepers, who have developed cancer. But any high school science teacher will tell you that you can’t take a statistic like that as proof of a causal link. What else do all those goalkeepers have in common? Could it be that they all wear gloves? That may sound silly but it’s just as scientifically plausible an explanation as blaming the pitches. There could well be other things they have in common. We don’t know.

But now that the question has been raised, it is a legitimate concern that requires further analysis. Because as Hamilton Wanderers first team manager Rod de Lisle so eloquently puts it:

“I spoke to a goalie at our club early this season and he said when he trained and played a lot on turf he would find rubber pellets coming from body orifices, including orifices he didn’t realize he had.”

And one of New Zealand’s best players, Katie Rood, Glenfield Rovers goal machine, said:

“I saw an article and video on this a couple of years ago about it happening in the states and shared it around. Someone like Erin [Nayler] who is on the turf on the regular diving in and what not, she resorts to full body coverage. Skins, tights etc (not ideal in the hot summer months). I do get concerned about it and try to limit exposure (won’t go to ground unless it’s going to be a game changing moment).”

So I approached a University of Auckland toxicologist – Associate Professor Malcom Tingle. Right off the bat he pointed to the article’s several references to the fact that there is a lack of conclusive evidence. His analysis was:

“The granules may well contain chemicals associated with toxicities including cancer, but from a simple toxicology perspective, I would want to know 1) if the players had sufficient exposure (ie ingested enough), 2) whether that dose ingested was in fact bioavailable (ie does it leach out of the granules) and 3) is there a statistically greater incidence of cancer (overall or a particular type of cancer) in players that use the artificial turfs compared with those that do not? I suspect that whilst the first question could be answered, the second and third cannot (at least at present).”

In other words, more actual research needs to be carried out before any conclusions can be drawn one way or the other.

As for the toxicity of New Zealand pitches, Ellerslie AFC Chairman Tim Adams told me:

“I can’t speak for the other turfs but ours had extensive emissions tests as it’s right next to a school that was concerned about it. Results were very favourable. …Our physio, who is a well-travelled medical expert, tells me that the [FIFA] research has been carried out by F-MARC, who spare absolutely no expense in objectively investigating any potential worries, and spend a bigger fortune in safeguarding player safety in the biggest sport in the world.”

My personal opinion is, while I have no doubt ingesting bits of rubber probably wouldn’t be great for your health, it pays to remember that a great many things in life have the potential to give you cancer.

As a footballer, one of the biggest carcinogens you are likely to be exposed to is the big yellow thing up in the sky – the sun – even on overcast days, as we know. Sure, you can protect yourself from the sun with sunblock, but unfortunately research has found that to be carcinogenic too! You really can’t win.

I would suggest, again with no scientific evidence to back up my assertion but that makes it no more or less valid than the Daily Mail article, that footballers are more likely to get skin cancer from UV rays playing the game they love than they are to get lymphoma from artificial turf.

Simply put, we do know for sure that the sun is carcinogenic. We do not know that artificial turf is.

That doesn’t mean that turf is harmless or that people aren’t right to be worried. But until we know for sure one way or the other, it is irresponsible of the Daily Mail to publish articles such as this and it’s lazy of the Herald to copy and paste it for New Zealand readers without any further investigation.

UPDATE: A reader has drawn my attention to this academic article. Worth a look.

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Enzo Giordani

A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.

2 replies

  1. Well put Enzo.

    IMO The other issues with artificials around impact and friction injuries (which have been well canvassed) are where the real issues lie. We can only assume that like everything technological, we keep making them better/safer. I really hope so anyway.

    1. Just on that topic I have yet to read any study that proves turfs are causing more injuries than grass fields. Most of the studies I read have either focused on:

      A) the number of injuries on turf vs grass without taking into consideration of the extra hours people trained on the turf, obviously the more hours trained the more risk of injury.

      B) the studies compare a perfect quality grass field to the turf when the reality is most turfs have replaced grass fields that were not in great nick, Michael’s Ave certinaly fell into this category.

      From personal experience I believe that a properly installed and maintained turf used with the correct footwear reduces the amount of ankle and injuries related to uneven surfaces etc. They are pretty tough on players who have some previous serious injuries as its a harder surface to run on than grass (even with the shock pad we have that other turfs don’t) and those players do struggle.

      At the end of the day we would all prefer a pristine grass surface but with the Auckland council level of maintenance combined with the lack of fields sometimes a turf or a hybrid is the only way to go.

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