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Artificial synthetic grass cannot be recycled. Photo courtesy Dr. Zuckerman
Artificial synthetic grass cannot be recycled. Photo courtesy Dr. Zuckerman

"Crumb Rubber" and the Risk of Carcinogens in Playgrounds

Por Nohan Meza
February 2024
Tires are engineered products that need to withstand temperatures of up to 195 degrees Fahrenheit and a resistance of over 40 PSI. To endure these extreme conditions, rubber has to be combined with a series of chemicals, including lead.
Landfills in 38 states, including NY, prohibit tires due to the environmental damage they can cause. Now, recycled tires, with all their harmful and carcinogenic chemicals, can be found being used on surfaces in children's playgrounds under a category of recycled rubber known as "crumb rubber."
Several parents in the city of Kingston have been requesting, since September of last year, information about the summer renovations in various playgrounds at George Washington School and other elementary schools in the city. These renovations used crumb rubber on the fields due to certain properties such as longevity, recycling, and the fact that it is softer.

The recycled material, scientifically referred to as styrene-butadiene rubber, may have obscured compositions, as determined by the Institute for Toxic Reduction at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. A report from the institute indicates, "Both styrene and butadiene are already established as carcinogenic chemicals. The composition of this rubber recycling process mixes various different tires, each with its own components, leading to a non-standardized final product."

In an interview with Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, journalist Mariel Fiori asks, Why do schools use this component if it's toxic? The answer is partially general ignorance and a lack of regulation. "Companies selling these products do not conduct analyses related to the harmful health effects that this filler can cause, and there is no regulation or law regarding the requirement to do so."

Practically speaking, Dr. Zuckerman mentions that while these fields are soft, which can mitigate physical injuries, the problem lies in these chemicals being present on the surface but much more concentrated below it. Over time, this layer begins to degrade, exposing the surface to a high concentration of toxins, including lead. "These chemicals can cause obesity, learning problems, premature puberty, and eventually even cancer", explains Zuckerman. 

Lee Kelly, a concerned mother from Kingston, along with other parents, requested during meetings of the Kingston City Board of Education to close these playgrounds. They also called for an injunction for any project using crumb rubber in fields until testing and transparency measures are implemented to ensure the health of children.

The response from Superintendent Dr. Paul Paladino to a letter presented by Kelly and the parents was, "Regarding the seven-page mail we received yesterday, we can write seven pages to refute that." Parents are still awaiting such a refutation. It is worth mentioning that several scientists and health professionals, such as epidemiologist Diana Zuckerman, have presented or will present expert testimonies outlining the dangers of crumb rubber and artificial turf.

Parents also urge Superintendent Paladino to carefully revisit the contract with Playsafe Surfacing, the company responsible for the renovations. They indicate that the manufacturers of the playground materials may have not knowingly added these toxic substances, but this does not consider pre-existing toxic substances.

In her interview with Mariel Fiori, Dr. Zuckerman said that there is already legal precedent regarding these substances. "These substances are already prohibited in their use in plastic toys, baby bottles, and even rubber ducks. But they are not prohibited from being used in playgrounds." These types of surfaces in playgrounds are already banned by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, the Los Angeles school district, the cities of Washington DC and Boston, the states of Maine and Vermont and the entire European Union.

They are also not prohibited in athletic fields, as well. Last year, the Dietz Stadium in Kingston began a series of renovations, including the use of synthetic turf for the new field. Much synthetic turf also uses crumb rubber, which, due to the high temperatures it can generate on hot days and the friction it creates with the body, can cause injuries. Several professional players, including Lionel Messi, have mentioned their preference for natural grass fields.

Mayor Steve Noble commented that Kingston has no plans to change the material used on the play surfaces during interviews with journalist Mariel Fiori. In his reasoning concerning Dietz, the mayor indicated, "We use the stadium from dawn until 10 at night. Our engineers say that with such heavy use, we cannot have traditional grass."

It is important to note that while some may claim synthetic turf has greater resistance and durability than traditional grass, over the years, the upper layers deteriorate and emit the same toxins, especially on hot days when these fields become heat islands. The EPA has identified 290 chemicals in recycled tires. The Yale School of Public Health isolated 306 in crumb rubber, of which computationally predicted that more than half would be carcinogenic, stating that the results of their research "underscore the need for human exposure studies" and cumulative impacts. New York Senate Bill S7239 adds that "health effects associated with these components, at dangerous levels, include birth defects, cancer, damage to the nervous system, and suppression of the immune system."

It is not clear how many playgrounds or sports fields in the Hudson Valley use crumb rubber, but any park with rubber surfaces is at risk of having these toxic components and should be tested. As an alternative, Dr. Zuckerman introduces a material called engineered wood fiber, which does not have chemicals, is also soft, meets the standards for people with reduced capacity and is already currently used in several states in the country. Nationally, the average cost of PIP rubber for a playground is $80,400, while the average cost of wood fiber is $13,300. The natural material not only does not pollute, but is biodegradable, and six times cheaper than those derived from used tires.

"I believe the day will come when this product will be banned," concludes Dr. Zuckerman. "But in the meantime, it is harming children, and we don't want that." That day is getting closer. Last year, the New York Senate introduced a moratorium until tests can be conducted on the chemical components of these fields indicating their safety for human use and contact. This bill would prohibit the use of crumb rubber on any sports or children's play surfaces, and a decision is expected this year. On the other hand, Governor Hochul has implemented a ban on the use of artificial carpets, which will take effect at the end of 2024. It remains to be seen what will happen with the renovations at Dietz Stadium and how its use will be implemented under these conditions, as the project has a cost of over $20 million and is partially paid for by residents through taxes.

The lack of transparency and an action plan for the safety of children persists. In an opinion piece for the Kingston Wire, mother Lee Kelly mentions that "this not only frustrates... but also perplexes. Tax money should not be spent on products that endanger health and harm our environment."

Sources and resources:
For information on petitions in Kingston: [email protected]
How to minimize contact with crumb rubber:
New York Senate moratorium:
Citizens against Artificial Grass, in X (formerly Twitter)
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