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The Virginian - Pilot (Norfolk, VA.)
NORFOLK — For nearly two decades, little thought was given to the health consequences of millions of kids playing sports on fields topped with crushed used tires.
More than 12,000 artificial turf fields in the United States are layered with tons of "crumb rubber."
When it was invented nearly two decades ago, crumb rubber was considered an ideal solution for a vexing waste-disposal problem. With billions of tires filling landfills or storage facilities, someone got the bright idea of shredding the tires into tiny specs and pouring them onto artificial turf.
Crumb rubber essentially acts as dirt, filling in the spaces between the blades of artificial grass. It takes 20,000 to 30,000 used tires to provide the crumb rubber to cover a football field.
Recently, questions have been raised about its safety. Some say soaring rates of cancer among soccer goalies are the result of playing on crumb rubber fields.
The science is far from settled, but the question got the attention of Brad Hobbs, who chairs Norfolk Christian's board of trustees. He was doing research last spring as the school prepared to install a new artificial turf field for its football, soccer and lacrosse teams.
Hobbs said despite industry claims that crumb rubber is safe, the more he read, the more he was convinced otherwise.
"I don't trust big money," said Hobbs, president of Hobbs & Associates, a Norfolk-based heating and cooling company. "I especially don't trust big money represented by lobbyists. I feel like there are things that are harmful that we don't learn about until years later than we should have."
Give Norfolk Christian officials credit: When Hobbs took the issue to school officials, they didn't hesitate. Building a field without crumb rubber would cost $250,000 more than was budgeted. But they put the health of their athletes first.
Norfolk Christian purchased an organic material, composed of ground coconut husks, as infill instead. Officials also paid an additional $50,000 for padding underneath the turf intended to prevent concussions.
Headmaster Dan Tubbs said that once Hobbs brought the issue to the board, it was settled. "We weren't going to do anything, even if it saved money, that could potentially harm our kids."
Hobbs said industry officials told him that Christian's field is the first in Virginia with natural infill.
"We don't know for sure that crumb rubber is harmful," said Hobbs, who has four children at Norfolk Christian. "But what if it's true?"
It's the same question every city and county in Hampton Roads should be asking as they make decisions on building or replacing fields or replenishing the crumb rubber infill.
Norfolk Christian's students and alumni are largely middle class, so spending beyond its budget wasn't an option.
When Norfolk Christian's Moore Family Field was dedicated last month, it opened without lights or stands. Those were cut to pay for the natural infill.
Norfolk Christian is still fundraising, $400,000 short of what it needs for lights and seating for 900. "We're stepping out in faith that God will provide the resources we need," Tubbs said.
For years, I never gave crumb rubber a second thought. If you've watched a Super Bowl, surely you've seen the black dots that pop up when a ball, or a receiver's head, hits the turf.
I often have to clean it off of my shoes after walking on artificial turf. It never occurred to me, as it hasn't to millions of parents, that the dots were from used tires.
Stories about cancer risks of crumb rubber began to appear nationally in 2014, when Amy Griffin, the associate head women's soccer coach at the University of Washington, voiced concerns in an NBC documentary.
Although crumb rubber contains four known carcinogens, including lead, there is no documented evidence that it causes cancer. Chemicals leach out in such small amounts that they are harmless, industry officials say.
Even so, Griffin said that she began to suspect something was wrong when two former goalies she knew got cancer in 2009. When she visited a cancer hospital in Seattle, a nurse mentioned to her that four other former goalies were being treated for cancer.
She said that's when it clicked: Goalies dive on the turf 50 to 100 times per practice. Crumb rubber gets ground into mat burns, into their clothes and sometimes are ingested through the mouth. Griffin began keeping a list of former athletes with cancer, now at more than 300, and statistically, there were are far more soccer goalies than should be.
She believes the issue needs to be studied.
In large part because of pressure from Congress, former President Obama authorized a $2 million Environmental Protection Agency study last year that will try to determine whether crumb rubber is safe. It is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
Some did not wait for the study. New York and Los Angeles halted the installation of crumb rubber fields. Norfolk Christian, meanwhile, reached out to the Catholic Diocese of Orlando as it weighed its options.
Officials in Orlando had the crumb rubber vacuumed off its fields and replaced with the coconut husks. They did so in part because of cancer concerns, but also because crumb rubber absorbs heat, a problem in Florida's searing sun.
"They told us their fields are 40 degrees cooler," Hobbs said.
Michelle Malana, a Virginia Beach real estate agent whose son, Ryan, plays on Christian's junior varsity football team, said she was relieved when she heard about the new field.
"I know they have to worry about costs," she said. "But it means a lot that they thought about the safety of our kids first."
Hobbs hopes to complete fundraising in time to install lights and stands for the fall football season.
"We're beating the streets," he said.
In the meantime, he said: "I sleep well at night. I know we did the right thing."
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