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Artificial pitches – safe, not perfect
For many years, sports players have been able to use all-weather pitches for football, rugby, lacrosse and gaelic sports. These playing surfaces often use rubber granules as infill. But are these granules safe? ECHA evaluated the health risks and our findings were published at the end of February 2017. The Commission is now deciding whether to take any further action. We spoke with Mark Blainey, Senior Scientific Officer in ECHA’s Risk Management Unit to ask what the findings in the report mean and what follow-up may be needed.
A low level of concern
Artificial sports pitches are used by a wide range of people – from children playing on them to professional athletes plying their trade. The safety of pitches has hit the headlines following concerns that exposure to rubber granules was linked with health risks including increased rates of cancer.
“When assessing chemicals that could cause cancer, the risk is never totally zero,” Mr Blainey explains and continues, “this is because very small amounts can theoretically cause an effect. Cancer risk is therefore expressed as the extra number of cancers that might statistically be expected from a measured exposure to the chemical”.
For example, rubber does contain some substances that are carcinogenic, and so do rubber granules. Substances commonly found in the recycled rubber granules include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals, phthalates, volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic hydrocarbons (SVOCs).
However, the key question is about the risks posed by the exposure from playing on these surfaces. The report found this risk to be less than one additional case of cancer for every million people exposed over a lifetime. “Bearing in mind that we made some cautious assumptions during the risk assessment, the real risks are likely to be lower than what we estimated,” he adds.
The report concludes that, from the evidence available, the number of excess cancers was not at the level where additional risk management measures would be required. These conclusions are in line with those recently made by the Department of Health of Washington State in the United States and the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) in the Netherlands.
Why the safety recommendations?
If the levels of concern are so low, why did ECHA make safety recommendations for people playing on the pitches?
“In one word, uncertainty,” Mr Blainey says and continues, “we had studies on several hundreds of samples taken from more than 100 pitches in at least five EU Member States. However, this does not rule out that other pitches in the same or other places would have different levels of substances in them”.
The Agency also had doubts about the quantity and quality of imported end-of-life tyres into the EU. These imported end-of-life tyres could contain higher concentrations of dangerous substances, like PAHs, compared to newer ones on the EU market. Although industry told ECHA that the quantities of imported end-of-life tyres used to produce rubber granules were small, this could not be verified from Eurostat data. “We know how many tyres are imported, but we don’t know for what purpose, so we can’t verify if they are used to produce rubber granules or not. We also couldn’t find the amount of rubber granules imported. The detail we would need to remove these uncertainties was just not there,” Mr Blainey says.
“For these uncertainties, we have proposed further action even though we don’t have direct evidence that there is a higher level of concern than we calculated using cautious assumptions,” he affirms.
Where the samples came from
Monitoring was done from pitches in five Member States – Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom – with the majority of samples coming from the Netherlands.
“The results represent several countries from northern, southern and central EU Member States. However, we can’t tell how representative those Member States are compared to the rest of the EU. We would need to have many samples from each Member State to really get a full picture of the situation,” Mr Blainey acknowledges. “However, we don't need to know the concentrations of substances in rubber granules, in every field, in every country, because we can recommend that the chemicals are limited to a safe level.”
The effect of warmer climates and weather on exposure to the substances was also questioned. “In theory, as the temperature rises, some of the more volatile substances could evaporate more quickly and in greater quantities, which would make it more likely to breathe them in or for them to be absorbed through the skin. However, as the analysis in the report was cautious, we would not expect these warmer conditions to affect the overall conclusions of the report,” Mr Blainey assures.
Staying on the safe side
The report recommends that players using the pitches should take basic hygiene measures after playing on them. This includes washing hands after playing and before eating, cleaning any cuts or scrapes, avoiding swallowing the granules, and taking off footwear, sports equipment and uniforms before going home. The recommendations were made to eliminate any remaining concerns.
The main recommendation of the report, however, was not aimed at players, but at regulators. The report advises limiting the amount of PAHs in rubber granules to keep the level of concern low. This approach has already been taken in entry 50 of Annex XVII to REACH, which limits the amount of PAHs in articles made of rubber. However, the rubber granules used as infill in synthetic turf are not covered because under REACH they are considered as mixtures rather than articles.
“Rubber granules are present as small, loose crumbs of rubber similar to pellets used to produce plastics, which are also considered as mixtures under REACH. The status as a mixture was agreed by the Commission and Member States at the meeting of REACH competent authorities in March 2016,” Mr Blainey says.
Since ECHA’s report was published, several new, small-scale studies on this issue have been done, for example, one in Belgium and another by the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. There is further information to come from the US Environmental Protection Agency who are also looking into the hazards of rubber crumb used on sports pitches.
“We have been in touch with the producers of these studies and asked to be sent the information when it is published. If there is any other information out there, we would be very interested in receiving it,” Mr Blainey requests.
“We have committed to review the report when we receive new information even if we are not asked to work further on this issue,” he concludes.
What were the recommendations?
Did you know?
Rubber granules (also called rubber crumb) used as infill material are mainly made from scrap tyres. Tyres are broken up, metal and leather fibres are removed and different sized pellets of rubber are left. Some of these are then ground down to form granules. The granules are used on synthetic sports pitches to make them more durable, weather-proof and last longer. They also add shock absorption and traction.
Synthetic turf is made of plastic material, e.g. polyethene, polypropylene or nylon, which is attached to a plastic web of polypropylene or polyester. Sand and rubber granules are used to fill the spaces between the artificial grass. The sand provides weight and holds the plastic web in place, while the rubber provides elasticity. The new generation of synthetic turfs use pile heights ranging from 35 to 65 mm (many systems being based on 60 mm carpets). Artificial pitches cost less to maintain and are more durable than grass ones. Some pitches have been approved by sports ‘governing bodies’ such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and World Rugby.
Interview by Paul Trouth
Top image: iStockphoto
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