Monday 22 January 2018

Comment - Uncomfortable new findings into the safety of new generation 3G pitches are something no parent can ignore

Research carried out by the VU University Amsterdam into the rubber crumbs used in new 3G pitches raise further questions over safety. CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
Research carried out by the VU University Amsterdam into the rubber crumbs used in new 3G pitches raise further questions over safety. CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES

Sam Wallace

In Dutch football, and Dutch political life, it is the problem that simply will not go away and on Wednesday the issue of the safety of the new generation of 3G pitches exploded once again with fresh allegations that the government’s safety tests had overlooked crucial aspects.

The safety of rubber crumb, the shredded tyres that act as infill on the new 3G pitches, is one that no parent can ignore given the boom in construction of the last ten years, both in the Netherlands and across Europe. What is in the 20,000 recycled tyres per pitch that make those little sock-filling black pellets? And can a product which by its nature is subject to so many variables be adequately monitored by regulatory bodies?

The English Football Association is currently embarking on the Parklife Grassroots hub project, which plans to build £200 million worth of 3G rubber crumb pitches in 30 towns and cities across England. In the UK it is the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to ensure safety of the pitches, and the FA is satisfied that its pitches are compliant. 

In Europe, it has been the Dutch broadcaster VARA, and the news investigation programme Zembla which has led the way in analysing the chemical composition of rubber crumb and whether the zeal of the rubber industry to find a way to recycle millions of tyres might be putting at risk future generations. On Wednesday, Zembla revealed their latest scientific study into rubber crumb, carried out by the VU University Amsterdam, and the findings were once again uncomfortable.

It was Zembla reporter Roelof Bosma whose original documentary in October had set the ball rolling, with evidence discovered of corners being cut in the pitch-building boom in the Netherlands that took the number of surfaces from 300 in 2006 to more than 2,000 now. He found that one town had used rubber crumb from recycled pipes from the petrochemical industry for its pitch, and residents who lived nearby fell ill.

Zembla’s investigation led to clubs like Ajax, Sparta Rotterdam and Heracles closing off 3G pitches to their young players and pressure on the Minister for Health Edith Schippers, who commissioned a report from the country’s public health institute, RIVM. Just before Christmas, under considerable pressure to give the Dutch public a definitive answer on rubber crumb, RIVM declared it to be safe.

The RIVM report assessed the risk to health from rubber crumb as “virtually negligible”. While it conceded that it contained “harmful substances”, these were only released in small quantities after “ingestion, contact with the skin or evaporation in hot weather”. RIVM recommended a reclassification of rubber crumb under European Union guidelines but found “no indications of a relationship” between the crumb and leukaemia or lymph node cancer.

The tests carried for Zembla out by VU, under the auspices of Jacob de Boer, professor of environmental chemistry and toxicology, used water loaded with the rubber crumb and produced some startling results. Prof de Boer challenged the RIVM findings that the chemical stayed embedded in the rubber crumb. He told Zembla: “Chemicals are in fact released, and that is an essential finding. So if they say: we can close the book on this matter … they [RIVM] are cutting corners.”

The VU researchers took samples of rubber crumb from eight 3G pitches in the Netherlands and placed the granules in water for seven days for leaching. They then exposed to the water zebrafish eggs and juvenile zebrafish – commonly used in research because of the similarities in zebrafish and humans with the development of cancer.

The 40 zebrafish embryos were exposed to the water for 24 hours and all died within five days. The juvenile fish exposed to the water all displayed signs of hyperactive behaviour which, according to the researchers, merits deeper investigation.

The VU toxicologist Jessica Legradi told Zembla: “You can imagine that it is a real concern if a particular chemical affects the brain, because in humans this may well cause epilepsy, ADHD or autism. Zebrafish are also used to study disorders such as autism and ADHD. They are used in cancer research as well, because cancer in zebrafish develops in a similar way as in humans.”

Is rubber crumb safe? At the very least, Legradi says, the rubber crumb must be subject to further investigation as to whether its health effects extend to humans. “That is a conclusion we cannot yet reach,” Legradi says, “but the findings are definitely alarming.”

Prof de Boer believes that there could be other chemicals present in the rubber crumb that caused the effect on the zebrafish. Up to now, the research, including that carried out by RIVM, has focussed on the Polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are believed to have carcinogenic properties and were originally cited as potentially a cause of cancer. Whatever affected the zebra fish would be released on a 3G pitch, Prof de Boer points out, by watering or a simple rain shower.

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