On a Sunday in November 2006, with the day going her way and the lady Gauchos leading 4-0, Austen Everett didn't know she d die young. Parents and classmates cheered as the freshman goalkeeper once considered one of the top five in the nation walked off the UC Santa Barbara soccer field, victorious.
It didn't occur to Everett that the sport she loved might contribute to her death a few years later, bringing her parents and others who also lost a child-athlete, at a very young age, to cancer and synthetic turf companies together in a rare joint call for answers.
I realized, oh my God, the thing that she loved most probably killed her, said Everett's mother, June Leahy, in a recent interview with NBC News. The young goalkeeper was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2008, and died four years later at the age of 25.
Is that even possible?
There aren't any carcinogens that can just give someone cancer in short order, not even cigarettes, which are a risk factor for just about everything. Yet University of Washington soccer coach Amy Griffin claims 158 soccer players nationwide 101 of them young goalkeepers have played on synthetic turf fields and then been stricken with cancer. She believes there must be a link.
A 2008 Environmental Protection Agency study found that the product is safe but parents remain concerned. And interestingly, so do synthetic turf companies.
The component under heavy scrutiny is called "crumb rubber," a tiny black, shock-absorbing grain that's spread over turf fields, which number more than 12,000 across the country. The fine rubber pieces come from ground-up car and truck tires, and they can contain cancer-causing chemicals, but as recent International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) studies have shown, so are sunshine and hot dogs. Without factoring in exposure, declaring something a hazard does not create a meaningful idea of risk.
"It's always been true that a carcinogenic gas is used to make tires," MIT-trained toxicologist Laura Greene told NBC News, "but it's never been true that once the tires are made [and] in use, once they're crumbled, that they liberate that or any other carcinogen."
That's not comforting to parents, who are going to opt first for their children's safety. And there are always environmental lawyers willing to promote fear and doubt. If that were the extent of it, the EPA would rule, yet some turf companies including AstroTurf and SprinTurf have recently joined parents' calls for further federal inquiry.
"There is no credible link between crumb rubber and cancer," AstroTurf' states, but the company "welcome[s] and support[s] further scientific studies."
The EPA, for once, has to be prodded into taking another look.
Why can t the EPA act? asked Rom Reddy, CEO of SprinTurf. "There is more than enough information for them to act. It is time to look at this information and act, and put parents minds to rest.
When the issue again gained prominence in October, a spokeswoman said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy just [didn't] have time to look into the matter. Once there was more media coverage, McCarthy's view changed. "It's worth looking at those issues," she told ESPN in November. "Because these are the issues that I don't believe we have systemically looked at for a long time or ever."
Without EPA action, groups with less understanding of the scientific method are going to do their own analyses. Virginia's Fairfax, Loudoun, and Montgomery counties have all begun their own assessments of their synthetic turf fields.
Politicians will respond even if the EPA does not. The day after ESPN's broadcast Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) called for investigations. California has launched a three-year study and the Consumer Product Safety Commission plans to review its 2008 assessment of crumb rubber s safety.
Safe to play on means something to parents," said CPSC chairman Elliot Kaye, speaking to NBC News, "that I don t think we intended to convey and I don t think we should have conveyed."
Until new studies are done, the issue will remain contentious but some in the industry remain confident.
"We are 100 percent confident in what the available data tells us," says Darren Gill, marketing VP for Field Turf, "that anyone using our products should rest assured there are no valid health concerns tied to artificial turf."
A few questions to ponder while this is being sorted out:
- There are about 800 cases of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in the US in the age group from 0-19 years.
- Is the 25 cases per year that are attributed to soccer players mathematically significant, or statistical noise?
- Most importantly, many of these cancers seem to be diagnosed a few years after the victims played on synthetic turf. Is this feasible? Cancers usually take many years to develop. Even when there is exposure to known carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke and asbestos, the cancer is generally detected decades, rather than years after constant exposure.
There is much that does not add up here. The emotional statements from parents whose children have died make for sensationalist news stories, but they are anecdotes, and as such, prove nothing about the cause of their children's cancer.
On the other hand, simply because the press is focusing on emotional stories, this does not mean that the fields are not contributing to some of the cases of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. There will be no definitive answer anytime soon.
Regardless of whether the synthetic turf is a health risk or not, what exactly is wrong with grass?