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Astroturf pitches: what’s the harm?

Featured Image: Rubber crumb covers pitches across the country, but at what cost? Picture courtesy of Josh Wilde.

Target publication and audience: The Observer Magazine (Sunday supplement for The Observer newspaper) as it produces lifestyle and thought provoking features.

The average reader can be male or female, and is likely to be aged 35 or over. Hence, this story is targeted at parents and grandparents who may be sending their children to play on these pitches without being aware of the potential health implications.


Astroturf pitches are a hub for football, a hub for the community. Just three years ago, FA chairman Greg Dyke announced a £230 million investment into this sector. So why are these surfaces being ripped up in the Netherlands, and how come a former NHS CEO is so concerned?

Ten players, covered from head to toe in a thick brown sheen, with only the occasional glint of colour from a pair of new, psychedelic boots, before these too are plastered in mud.

Ten players, dressed like athletes, but whose real physique is given away by sodden football shirts that stick to their chests and reveal the toll of pre-match pies and post-match visits to the pub.

BATTLING THE ELEMENTS: Five-a-side footballers watch on as the heavens open. Picture courtesy of Josh Wilde.

Within months, the World World Two-esque trenches on both goal-lines will be replaced by a pristine, green Astroturf surface.

It is all part of the FA’s vision, laid out in 2014, to build more than 600 new 3G pitches by 2020.

The benefits are obvious: teams can play in all-weathers, with little risk of postponements.

So, what’s the harm?

An Expert’s View

Andrew Watterson is a Professor of Health Effectiveness at Stirling University. He explains the rubber crumb that is spread on artificial pitches to improve the bounce of the ball, made out of shredded car tyres, contain potentially harmful chemicals, in levels which exceed toy safety standards.

“These particular chemicals are known to be carcinogens”

“There are various chemicals in recycled tyres, including volatile organic compounds,” he said. “These particular chemicals are known to be carcinogens.

“It doesn’t necessary mean anybody would be exposed to them and if they were, that they’d be exposed to levels which caused health problems.”

Research into this area is ongoing, with the results of a major U.S. study expected late next year. Andrew is surprised by the number of questions still left unanswered.

“What surprises me as a researcher is there is so little known,” the Professor added. “We’re still asking questions about a product which has been around since the late 1990s.”

Rubber crumb is also used in children’s play areas. Picture courtesy of Kolforn (Wikimedia) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) or Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons
Rubber crumb is also used in children’s playgrounds.

To mitigate any health risk, Andrew believes alternatives such as coconut husk could be used.

“If we don’t know what the problems are and there are easy, safer substitutes, it makes sense to go with them,” he added.

“You don’t necessarily need crumb rubber in all-weather pitches but there are cost implications. It would seem sensible to look into substitutes we know are safe, rather than have things we think are safe.

“A lot more action should be taken by the authorities”

“There are things individuals can do to reduce any potential exposure but more action should be taken by the authorities. That’s not an argument about doing more research. We’ve got some information now that we should be acting on to tighten standards and give people who use these pitches more assurance.”

IN GOAL: A goalkeeper looks on as the opposition try to mount an attack. Picture courtesy of Josh Wilde.

In the Netherlands, Astroturf pitches have been ripped up in response to a public outcry.

“I don’t think we’re at that stage at the moment,” Andrew said. “Measures can be taken to ensure that possible exposure is greatly reduced.”

Quinton Bale, 18, plays as a goalkeeper on Astroturf pitches with his friends. He had heard some people say rubber crumb could be dangerous, but wasn’t sure what to believe.

“It’s up to people to play at their own risk”

“It’s up to people to play at their own risk,” he said. “It doesn’t really worry me as such, but then again, being a goalkeeper could make a difference as I’m on the floor a lot and getting it all over my body.

“The rubber crumb gets everywhere when I take my kit bag home.

STEPPING OUT: Up and down the country, players step onto pitches like this one. But are they putting themselves at risk? Picture courtesy of Josh Wilde.

“Knowing the truth would let me focus on my game, rather than wondering if I’m putting myself at risk.”

Lewis Maguire was another keen goalkeeper, playing three or four times a week. At the age of 15, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after becoming unwell during a football trial at Leeds United.

A couple of years later, he was watching a TV news report where former American goalkeeeper Amy Griffin was being interviewed.

 

She had noticed a correlation between football players, especially goalkeepers, and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Lewis pointed this out to his father Nigel Maguire, who did some research and discovered that rubber crumb contains carcinogens.

“I started asking questions and the reality was, there wasn’t the answers”

“I thought ‘this can’t be right’,” he said. “I started asking questions and the reality was, there wasn’t the answers.”

The FA released a statement in February 2016 which said their independent research had shown Astroturf pitches to be safe.

“When you look at the evidence, it doesn’t really exist,” Nigel added. “There is no research that says it’s perfectly safe if you ingest it, get it in cuts, or breathe in the dust.”

Zebrafish are used as a human indicator in research. Picture courtesy of Oregon State University (Zebrafish) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Nigel has been a vocal campaigner in raising awareness of this issue. In February this year, research commissioned by Dutch TV company Zembla found that rubber crumb killed all 40 zebrafish embryos within five days.

Zebrafish are used to assess the toxicology of substances and are genetically similar to humans.

 

“There may be more than just a theoretical risk”

“This is the first evidence I’ve seen that says there may be more than just a theoretical risk,” Nigel revealed. “My view is we should take the precautionary principal.

“I would strongly advise goalkeepers not to play regularly on this surface and they should take sensible precautions.”

Football is often referred to as ‘the beautiful game’ and Astroturf pitches give many people the opportunity to play the nation’s sport, but at what cost to their health?

Published in Features

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