Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

Crumb Rubber Turf Wars: The Synthetic Turf Fields Investigation

Academic journal article Defense Counsel Journal

Crumb Rubber Turf Wars: The Synthetic Turf Fields Investigation

Article excerpt

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 Toxic and Hazardous Substances Litigation Committee newsletter.

ALL those beautiful artificial turf fields popping up everywhere these days have transformed the sports and playground surface industry - the artificial fields stay green all year round, work well in any kind of weather, never turn to mud or dust, and require no herbicides or fertilizers to maintain. No wonder these fields now cover the football stadium surfaces of many college and pro teams, as well as thousands of local community soccer fields and playgrounds.

But the promise and advantages these fields bring to sports is being threatened by currently unsupported allegations of a darker side of the turf field lurking beneath the surface - or more accurately, in the surface of these fields. The fields use a material called crumb rubber, made from tiny bits of ground up tires, to provide the "infill" necessary to support the grass blades and to cushion impacts. In part led by a monograph published in 2007 by the EH HI, a group of advocates has mounted an increasingly aggressive attack on crumb rubber. Those advocates claim that crumb rubber contains carcinogens and either could or actually is causing cancers and other health problems for players and children who use these fields. Many of the news stories cite to a group of over 150 soccer players identified with cancer, and many of them goalies, who understandably spend more time on the turf surface.

The crumb rubber material consists of chopped or ground up tire bits, so the material itself is likely no more dangerous than a tire itself. But in the ground up form, crumb rubber lays loose on these fields, sprays up when balls strike it, and routinely clings to the shoes, clothing, and skin of players. Many soccer moms and dads have no doubt cleaned it off their own children's clothing at home. And thus crumb rubber presents an attractive target for adverse health claims - a strange material (what are these small black pellets?), known to contain certain carcinogens, used on fields where children play, and which attach to skin and clothing or could presumably be ingested.

For some years the challenge to crumb rubber had little traction. But NBC news picked the story up in October 2014 and again a year later in a series of specials. That and other media helped generate Congressional attention. After requests from certain members of Congress, three federal agencies - the CPSC, EPA, and the CDC - recently announced a joint health investigation. California's OEHHA has also announced a three-year investigation, in which EPA will assist. The studies will examine the way in which the fields are used, likely sources of exposure, and the contents of crumb rubber, and may also include a component focused on monitoring actual releases. The CPSC has advised Congress that crumb rubber is one of its two top priorities for 2016-2017, so the agency investigation is not an inconsequential effort.1 No litigation has yet ensued over these health claims, other than a short burst of activity some years ago focused on lead in the grass itself. But some plaintiff firms are trolling, and the investigations could prompt medical monitoring or other litigation.

This article provides background on the health issues and studies to date, why the existing studies do not support the claims, and where the investigations are likely headed. We include a section on the regulatory status and another on litigation, if it occurs. In the world of emerging torts, crumb rubber has moved into the top echelon of potential new sources of claims.2

I. Crumb Rubber - What Is It and Where Is It Used?

Crumb rubber is made of the car and truck tires that formerly filled the nation's landfills, or even worse piled up on roadsides and empty lots. Today, used tires are ground up and recycled to create, among other things, the infill for synthetic turf. Tires are reduced down to tiny, granular rubber pieces, with 99 percent or more of the steel and fabric removed from them. …

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