San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department plans to replace the crumb rubber infill it uses for synthetic fills, but the department appears to be out of the loop on the seriousness of the situation. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Synthetic turf poses potential health risks

San Francisco is littered with remnants of a questionable recycling program. Ground-up, used tires have found their way out of the trash, on to our playgrounds and soccer fields and into our homes. Federal and California state agencies, which once assured us crumb rubber infill in synthetic fields was safe, are reassessing health impacts. The Los Angeles Unified School District removed the material from preschool playgrounds.

Is The City taking tire turf’s potential risk seriously, too?

Crumb rubber contains carbon black — a substance California designated as a carcinogen. It also contains lead, the same materials present in car exhaust and gasoline and other variable materials. There is a growing link between these chemicals and an increase in lymphomas, a cancer heavily influenced by environmental factors, and other forms of cancer among young athletes, especially soccer goalies.

While the evidence is currently anecdotal, it’s not surprising that playing on old, used tires could be hazardous. To Dr. David Brown, a public health toxicologist who worked at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more than a decade, it’s simply common sense.

“Car companies are in the business of making tires,” he told me. “They’re not in the business of making a product for children. Are there dangerous chemicals present there? The answer is yes. Is there a pathway to exposure? The answer is yes.”

Many schools, soccer fields and playgrounds in San Francisco have crumb rubber infill. Thankfully, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department will start replacing it with “natural infill” this May. The department doesn’t know what kind of natural infill it will use, and replacement will be limited to Franklin and Garfield squares — even though it appears funding to replace tire turf at the Youngblood-Coleman and Silver Terrace playgrounds was also approved. But Rec and Park’s decision to replace any tire turf is great news for people who use the older fields that could pose a greater health risk.

“The technology has changed, and we’re excited to experiment with alternate infill,” Director Phil Ginsburg told me.

But I’m not as excited as I should be. Besides the limited and ambiguous nature of the replacement, when I reached out to the department for information, they gave me no indication tire turf is being replaced in response to health concerns. In fact, I don’t think Rec and Park gets the seriousness of the situation at all.

In calls and emails with me, the department repeatedly emphasized “the health benefits associated with the 90,000 additional hours of annual play and all of the new youth sports teams that have been created because of these fields.” I don’t understand why, given present-day concerns, this is something to emphasize. Are we supposed to thank them for exposing more of us? Am I supposed be happy when I find carcinogenic crumbs on my toddler’s floor instead of mud and grass?

“They say kids will have a place to play, and I say kids will have a place to die,” said Kathleen McCowin, a local attorney, activist and soccer mom. McCowin’s daughter grew up playing soccer on tire turf and grass fields in the area. “Every year, I do a blood test on my daughter. I just hope and pray nothing happens or that she lives through it if she gets it.”

McCowin wants to give parents and players current data on tire crumb health risks and get more complete data from cancer registries. She is also asking city leaders to provide Proposition 65 signs near tire turf, so San Franciscans understand the potential cancer risk. She placed a few signs around and was happy to see one kept 30 preschoolers away.

But San Franciscans shouldn’t have to rely on guerilla tactics of concerned mothers to get information about potentially significant health impacts. Instead of touting tire turf’s benefits, Rec and Park needs to recognize and disclose its potentially significant costs. The City must take San Franciscans’ health seriously.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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