In a long-awaited but limited report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that there was no cause for immediate concern from lead and other toxins in artificial-turf fields and playground surfaces made from recycled tires.
The EPA cautioned, however, that the 123-page study was too small to rule out potential health threats.
The report was triggered by controversy in New Jersey after the state Health Department reported in spring 2008 that it found elevated levels of lead dust coming from two aging fields in Newark and Hoboken. Since then, other states, including Connecticut, California, and New York, have conducted their own studies, as have various federal agencies. The studies focused on lead in the nylon grass fibers and the rubber tire crumbs that form the cushioning.
Results have been conflicting, and the studies have all had their own limitations. For example, the New Jersey study focused only on the artificial-turf fibers, but others dealt with the rubber crumbs - pulverized tires that rest between the blades and help them stand up. The Consumer Product Safety Commission said there were no risks, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised precautions for children using the fields.
Peter Grevatt, who oversees children's health issues at the EPA, said the agency would hold a meeting in the spring, possibly in May, to bring together officials from these states and the federal agencies to discuss what the next step should be.
Grevatt said the workshop would explore whether a more comprehensive study was warranted.
Air and surface samples for the EPA study released yesterday were taken from three athletic fields or complexes in North Carolina, Georgia, and Ohio, and from one playground in the Washington area. The testing was so limited, Grevatt said, that the agency was "not in a position to draw any conclusions on a national basis."
Between August and October last year, the EPA took air samples from about three feet above the surfaces - roughly the nose level of children - to determine the inhalation risk. The agency also collected samples wiped from the turf blades.
All samples came back at levels within acceptable standards, Grevatt said, but testing was not done for all toxins.
The tires might contain arsenic, cadmium, chromium, manganese, mercury, lead, benzene, latex, and other compounds. Some of elements are carcinogenic and some can cause brain dysfunction.
Suzanne Wuerthele, a retired toxicologist with the EPA's Denver office who alerted the agency to the potential health threats about two years ago, said the agency should have sampled a representative number of fields that use the different types of tires before issuing any findings.
"They pay lip service up front to the limitations to the study and then come to their conclusions and say, 'Don't worry, we have no problems right now.' They shouldn't give the wrong impression," Wuerthele said.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said he too was disappointed with the EPA study. "We still call on the EPA to remove their endorsement since they say they don't have information one way or another to say it's safe," Ruch said, referring to the EPA's endorsement of rubber crumb surfaces because they break falls and lessen sports injuries. "Given that they say preventing childhood exposures [to toxins] is a top priority, their response to the findings of potential exposures shouldn't be, 'Let's have a meeting.' "
Shira Miller, spokeswoman for the Synthetic Turf Council, which represents the industry, saw the EPA's announcement as positive. "The EPA said there's low levels of concerns, and we are glad it reaffirms all the other information coming out this year," she said. "There have been really major positive developments affirming the safety of synthetic turf this year."
More than 5,000 turf fields are installed nationwide, and most have rubber-tire cushioning, according to the council.
Other findings noted in the EPA report were that no tire-related fibers were observed in the air samples, and that more than 90 percent of the lead in the tire-crumb material was tightly bound and could not be absorbed by the body.
More information on the EPA report and artificial turf is at http://go.philly.com/turfEndText