Rain or shine, those fields will always be especially green and vibrant, untouched by mud or wear or flood. But those beautiful fields aren't real - at least not in the sense of being natural. They are artificial turf, a synthetic carpet of grass-colored fibers filled with a layer of tiny rubber particles called crumb rubber that make the surface feel soft and natural.
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Crumb rubber is manufactured from old tires and the use of it on athletic field and on playgrounds, has been turning heads since a University of Washington women's soccer coach named Amy Griffin made news for drawing a line between the rubber infill and occurrences of cancers such as lymphoma in young athletes, particularly soccer goalies.
Before the investigation, concerns about the safety of using old tires as a surface for children to play on were assuaged by the U.S. Environment Protection Agency. The agency had previously tested the material and deemed it safe, but has since backtracked and conceded that further testing is needed.
For parents like Tina CoyneSmith, whose children play on elite soccer leagues in Chapel Hill and are continuously exposed to the rubber particles, the lack of research is alarming, especially since the long list of chemicals present in tire rubber is worrisome.
Tires - and thus the crumb rubber infill - contain traces of chemicals such as the carcinogens carbon black, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and benzene. Some synthetic fields have been closed due to elevated traces of lead.
"I've heard people say, you know, this has been proven safe, this is something you can put on the shelf, you don't need to worry about this," said CoyneSmith. "But really, this is not the concern of an anxious soccer mom."
Andrew Baron, an Apex-resident, said he no longer allows his young children to play on artificial turf. He recently moved his son, who plays soccer, to a different league, one that doesn't play on crumb rubber fields.
"My concerns are having my kids exposed to all the particulates, all the toxins that have been proven to be in the tire crumb because it's easily inhalable," said Baron. "It can go in through all different parts of the body and there have been multiple studies done that show that these toxins that can be problematic."
As players kick and dive on this crumb-rubber turf, the particles fly into the air in a black cloud, like little swarms of gnats. They fall on the kids and get caught in hair, ears, mouths, open cuts. Children trek the particles home in their shoes and their clothes. Parents sweep them off their kitchen floors long after the games and practices have ended.
Another Chapel Hill parent, Dr. Joanne Promislow, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and has worked as an epidemiologist, used her son's two soccer balls to demonstrate her biggest worries about the crumb rubber fields, especially the ones that are much older than the one at Cedar Falls Park.
One soccer ball, the one he uses on natural fields, was slightly faded from use but otherwise pretty clean. The other, the one he uses for practice on turf fields, was grimy, the neon colors hidden by a layer of grayish-brown dust.
"You bounce the ball and you can see the stuff, how it flies up into the air, and you think about a ball bouncing right in front of a goalie," Promislow said. "A goalie makes a save just as this stuff is flying up and it's in the goalie's face, and it's not just the crumb, but what if there's dust, what if this stuff is degrading and they're inhaling the carcinogenic dust?"
Promislow and CoyneSmith said that because their children play on elite teams, they don't have the option to put them in an alternate league that doesn't play on crumb-rubber fields unless they want their children to give up playing soccer at the level they're currently at.
CoyneSmith said the reports she's seen about Amy Griffin's 200-plus list of soccer players with cancer - the majority of which were goalies like CoyneSmith's older child - made her feel like she needed to take action.
"I think to myself, I've got to take my children off these fields. I can't let them play soccer," she said. "And then I think, well I hate to do that, soccer's their life. And then I think, but it's their life."
She said she's established a rule where her children are allowed to practice and play on the fields, but they're not allowed to practice as goalies as that requires diving, often face-first, into the crumb rubber. She said the minute her kids are off the field, off comes their shoes, their practice clothes, and they go straight into the shower once they get home.
Leaders in the synthetic turf industry assert that the concentration of chemicals in crumb rubber aren't significant enough to have health effects on those exposed to the infill. The Synthetic Turf Council, a trade association, sites several studies on their websites that have not found crumb rubber to be a health concern.
Still, experts now say that the studies available on this issue aren't comprehensive enough to say that for sure.
In February, the EPA launched a plan to study crumb rubber and the possible effects it might have on athletes more comprehensively. On their website, the EPA said it plans to have initial results by the end of the 2016 year.
And a representative from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences based out of Research Triangle Park said the potential health risks of crumb rubber specifically to athletes playing on the turf have not yet been sufficiently evaluated. NIEHS has also begun to plan out a course of research on crumb rubber that they hope will complement the EPA's plan.
When federal testing is done by the projected end of the year, however, there will likely be more questions brought to light than answered.
"For a parent like me, who has a child who plays on this field two to three days a week this summer, this fall, the science will not be here fast enough for me to make decisions on this field," CoyneSmith said. "There are enough red flags, there are enough proven carcinogens in the material that everybody agrees on, that we are at a point where we need to raise awareness about this issue, and we need to ask ourselves, is this OK for our children to play on?"
Artificial turf in the community
Despite the growing concerns among parents, crumb rubber fields are popping up around the country, North Carolina included. Even playgrounds in the communities and in schools are turning to crumb rubber, exposing infants and toddlers to the tire crumb.
Some parents like Baron don't believe it's worth the risk. He said it doesn't make sense for state and local governments to concede to the use of crumb rubber infill.
Baron is just one out of several concerned parents in the Triangle area who have asked town councils to reconsider using crumb rubber fill. Apex parents have presented to the Apex Town Council about considering an alternate fill, such as corkonut - a mix of cork and coconut - but alternative fills are often more expensive and don't last as long.
The Apex Town Council decided to go ahead with their plans to fill the field at Hunter Street Park with the crumb rubber, to Baron's disappointment, he said.
"I can't understand why they would do that because to me they're using our kids as guinea pigs really," he said. "They don't really know what the long term effects are going to be when they're making these decisions. They're thinking that there won't be a problem and they've been told maybe by certain people who are studying it that it's safe, but as we've discussed the EPA has already decided to do another study this year to look into the damaging effects of tire crumb."
CoyneSmith has also dedicated a lot of her time to researching the issue and leading a similar charge in Chapel Hill to keep crumb rubber off the fields her children play on. She said she's accumulated an email list serve of over 100 parents who want to be kept up to date.
Furthermore, the concerned mother has presented to the Chapel Hill Town Council about reconsidering the use of crumb rubber in their future fields. The one at Cedar Falls Park opened for public use in early 2014 - before the news story of the University of Washington soccer coach brought the issue with crumb rubber to light.
Since CoyneSmith's charge, the Chapel Hill Town Council voted in June to fill the newest artificial turf on Homestead Field with a material called EPDM - a purer form of rubber, though arguably it has also not been tested for its effects on young athletes.
The council acknowledged parent's concerns with the tire material, and also expressed concern about the potential future costs of removing the crumb rubber infill should it be discovered that long term exposure is harmful.
Eventually, the council conceded to the use of the EPDM material for several reasons, the major ones being that the council, which hardly ever has money to give to the Parks and Recreation department they said, had the money in that moment, as well as the fact that there is a shortage of fields in the community for children to practice on.
Communities like Apex, Chapel Hill, Holly Springs and so many more are inclined to make the move to artificial turf with crumb rubber infill because it doesn't require regular maintenance like natural turf, and is impervious to flooding. For young athletes in the area, the rainy spring season can wipe out their natural fields for days at a time costing them essential practice time.
THE QUESTION REMAINS
The question remains - and will continue to remain - as to whether these concerns are warranted. It is undeniable that the carcinogenic compounds exist in the crumb rubber, but, as Dr. William Kaufmann of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center points out, there are also trace levels of arsenic in our rice - a known human carcinogen - and that doesn't stop us from eating rice. Just because the chemicals are there, he said, doesn't necessarily mean they're responsible for cancer in athletes.
Dr. Kaufmann, who studies environmental causes of cancer, said he can't easily imagine a scenario in which the crumb rubber is accountable for causing cancer in young athletes as the ingestion of the particles deep enough into the body to enter the blood stream would be necessary before the carcinogens even had the opportunity to take a toll on the body.
Dr. Kaufmann said he has looked at the epidemiology data of incidences in lymphoma in the American population over the last forty years. The data shows that incidences of lymphoma has doubled in that time, but it has doubled in all age groups, not just the age groups who would reasonably be affected by the emergence of crumb rubber in the 1990's - twenty to thirty year olds today.
"So there is no evidence of a substantial rise in lymphoma among people in the age group that would have been exposed to crumb rubber when they were children playing soccer," he said. "Now it could be that this is still underneath that, but recognizing then that there is a background instance of lymphoma across the population all the time."
More comprehensive research is needed, said Dr. Kaufmann, studies that specifically look at issues that are unique to athletes and children playing on the surface. But compared to other carcinogens in our environment - like those from air pollution and sunlight - the dangers to our children from crumb rubber will probably rank pretty low, he said.
"As parents we're pretty much continuously evaluating things in our environment that can harm our children and we have very sensitive tools and we can see harmful substances everywhere," Dr. Kaufmann said. "But yet we have to go on living and recognize that probably the level of cancer that's in the human population coming from these things in the environment is just not all that extreme."
Still, concerned parents will likely continue to worry after the health of their children until conclusive evidence is released.
"Really at the end of the day I hope this is all for nothing," CoyneSmith said. "I hope we study this and everybody says oh you all had nothing to worry about. But really deep down in my heart, I just don't think that's what we're going to see."
Some cities and countries are already taking action. Most recently in Concord, Massachusetts, voters approved a moratorium on artificial turf. Earlier this year, crumb rubber turf was banned in Harford, Connecticut. In 2008, New York City stopped installing fields with crumb rubber and in 2009 the Los Angeles Unified School District did the same thing. European countries such Sweden and Norway have total bans on crumb rubber.S