Opinion: Crumb rubber at the Tom Bates Fields – Is it safe for our kids?

There are health and environmental concerns about crumb rubber, a material used for the infill turf at the Gilman Fields. Join our campaign to replace it with something safer.

The Tom Bates Regional Sports Complex, otherwise known as Gilman Fields, contains both grass and artificial turf fields, and are some of the most heavily used playing fields in the area. The fields are used year-round by youth and adult athletes from many neighboring cities, for soccer, rugby, lacrosse, and Ultimate frisbee. The two artificial turf fields were installed eight years ago, and are in dire need of replacement. They are scheduled to be closed and renovated from late November 2017 to February 2018.

We have an opportunity to provide input to the City of Berkeley in its choice of a turf infill material, and we are asking for a safer, greener environment for athletes who use the fields.

Turf infill is made of small particles that are in the grass blades and simulate dirt, cushioning falls. In the 1990s the EPA promoted an infill called crumb rubber, made from recycled tires, which they embraced as a solution to keeping old tires out of landfills. Crumb rubber provided an inexpensive and apparently durable material, and reduced water use.

In recent years, health concerns have risen about crumb rubber, however. A Yale chemical analysis found 12 carcinogens in the synthetic turf tested. Some young athletes playing on crumb rubber are getting diagnosed with blood cancers, possibly as a result of inhaling gases from, ingesting, or having direct skin contact with the crumb rubber, especially through an abrasion or sore. Anecdotal evidence being gathered shows that goalies in particular are more vulnerable, because they have more contact with the ground.

Additionally, some local kids report having their asthma triggered after playing at the Gilman Fields. Artificial turf fields can reach high surface temperatures, so athletes may be at risk of heat-related injuries while playing on crumb rubber.

As well as potential health risks to players, environmental concerns abound. As crumb rubber degrades, it can leach toxic substances into our soil, plants and waterways. Crumb rubber gets tracked into players’ homes and vehicles as it sticks to their shoes and clothing.

Due to data and knowledge gaps in the completed studies on crumb rubber, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment are currently conducting lengthy studies on the health effects of exposure to crumb rubber, but the results won’t be known until next year.

Fortunately, infill materials are now being made from cork and coconut fibers that are both biodegradable and durable, provide good cushioning (GMAX rating), play similarly to grass fields, and require only 10% of the watering of grass. A number of East Bay facilities have these types of infill products. Coaches who use these fields report that the surface plays like natural grass and that they are happy with the playability and performance of the fields along with the durability.
The City of Berkeley Project Team will be recommending an infill material and accepting public comment at an upcoming meeting. The team may also be considering crumb rubber which is encased in a hard coating, a product made from sand, and other alternatives.

Safe Gilman Turf is a group of parents whose kids play at Gilman Fields. We are advocating for a safer infill material, such as those infill products made from cork and coconut fibers, to be installed next winter. We have a reasonable doubt that crumb rubber infill is safe. We don’t have to be 100% certain of the risks to take precautions, which may protect our children from potential adverse health effects.

Please visit our website, safegilmanturf.org, for information and to sign our petition to ask for a non-crumb rubber infill.

A Community Meeting about this project will be held on Saturday, March 25 at 10 a.m., at Frances Albrier Center, San Pablo Park in Berkeley.

Working together we can make a safe, green choice for the many athletes and their families who use the Tom Bates Sports Complex. Join us in advocating for a material that meets the playability and durability needs of athletes, while strengthening our legacy of environmental responsibility and public health!

Kristin Leimkuhler, Suzanne Balmaceda, Robert Cohen and Luz Kirsch are representatives for Safe Gilman Turf.