Matt Pratt-Hyatt, Ph.D.
As a parent of two young children I understand that parents have a long list of things to worry about. We parents worry if our children are eating right, getting enough sleep, or if they're making friends. Unfortunately, we now also have to worry about the toxic environment to which our children may be exposed, be it the toys they are playing with or the cups they use for drinking. The latest data shows that the playgrounds and artificial turf fields they play on may be quite toxic and hazardous to their health.
In the last two decades, many playgrounds, soccer fields, and football fields have been replacing their natural surfaces with a synthetic surface of rubber granules made up of ground up tires. Despite the popularity of these types of surfaces many different activist groups have expressed concern that these synthetic materials may be a toxic burden on our children.
In 2006 a commentary was written in Environmental Health Perspectives detailing how little we knew about the material we are having our children play on (Anderson et al, 2006). In the years since, there have been some insightful studies performed that give clues into how harmful prolonged exposure to these playing fields may be. In 2007, a study from the nonprofit organization Environment and Human Health, Inc. and the Department of Analytical Chemistry at the Connecticut Agricultural Experimental Station produced one of the first reports about chemicals found leaching from artificial surfaces made from rubber tires. This report indicated that benzothiazole, butylated hydroxyanisole, n-hexadecane, 4-(t-oxtyl) phenol, and zinc were found leaching from the tires. These chemicals are known carcinogens and neurotoxicants (Brown et al., 2007).
A second report in 2008 in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology provided some additional data on the chemicals that could affect children. The report indicated that the rubber granules have a much higher amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) than soil. Zinc and chromium were also found to be much higher in the artificial surfaces than in soil. The report also stated that although lead was not found to be much higher than in soil the bioaccessibility was much higher (Zhang et al, 2008). PAHs are known neurotoxic chemicals which have been found in air pollution from fossil fuel combustion. A recent study published in PLOS One from the University of Columbia discovered a link between PAH exposure and the development of attention deficit and hyperactivity problems (Perera et al., 2014).
In the last several years many alternatives to crumb rubber have emerged. One drawback to these alternatives is that they will add cost to the play area project. However, these costs do not calculate the damage these surfaces may be inflicting on our children. In light of the new data, any new playground or school field should reconsider the use of crumb rubber.