For universities such as Durham, as well as sports clubs in general, 3G pitches, like the rubber crumb, are incredibly useful for all sports in all types of weather conditions. They need little effort to maintain and are easily transferable from sport to sport. Now, however, studies have led to doubts being raised about the health risks of such surfaces, leading countries such as the Netherlands to start ripping up their pitches.
These revelations have called into question the FA’s aim to increase 3G pitches by fifty percent by 2020 and, by extension, may even raise an issue with the surfaces in place at Maiden Castle in Durham.
Back in February, a story emerged of 18-year-old Lewis Maguire, a goalkeeper at Leeds United’s academy, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma cancer. Maguire was also a regular user of 3G surfaces in Darlington. His father Nigel shared the theory that this illness had been caused by the amount of time Lewis was spending diving around on a rubber crumb. Although seemingly an outlandish suggestion, there is, in fact, an ever-growing amount of evidence to suggest that these rubber pellets found in 3G surfaces could be capable of causing cancer.
Various studies over the last ten years have placed a link between the small pieces of rubber added to artificial turf and carcinogens, substances capable of causing cancer in living tissue. In 2006, a Norwegian study concluded that these pellets contained a considerable amount of components which could have ‘a serious adverse effect on health.’ Two years later, chemicals, such as arsenic and lead, were discovered in samples.
What is therefore worrying is that it is clearly unknown what exactly it is in this rubber which is being used in playing surfaces all over the world. An article in The Telegraph last week asked how anyone could plausibly track the specific history of a mass-recycled waste product. Maguire, a former NHS executive, emphasised the effect of these concerns to in the same article.
“When the rubber crumbs are breathed in, ingested, or enter the body through the nose, ears, eyes or mouth, the tiny particles can get into the digestive and respiratory tracts. The particles are minute, sharp and embed very easily. These surfaces also cause grazes or burns in a way natural grass and turf does not. Minor scuffs can be much deeper when suffered on artificial surfaces and so substances may enter the body through these abrasions.”
Moreover, a statistical study done by Amy Griffin at the University of Washington adds further weight to the case against 3G pitches. By examining 200 regular users of these surfaces who had developed cancer, she concluded that 158 were footballers and more than half of that number were goalkeepers. This number seems too great to be anomalous, especially given the extra contact that goalkeepers will have with the ground, resulting in more contact with the potentially hazardous pellets than any outfield position.
When questioned on this report, Quentin Sloper, Director of Sport, Music and Drama at Experience Durham, played down the fears, claiming, “The safety of our participants is of the utmost importance. All Durham University’s artificial sports pitches are certified to the highest standards of safety and our two rubber crumb surfaces are fully compliant with guidance from Sport England and RFU and FA specifications.”
Though reassuring to an extent, it does not quell any fears. Regardless of the specifications outlined by any governing body, the recent studies suggest a deeper underlying problem: that it may be impossible to track the safety and history of each individual pellet.
In the Netherlands, however, action has been taken, with Minister for Health, Edith Schippers, calling for a thorough investigation on the matter. Likewise, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, also called for an investigation last month. It will be interesting to see if the UK starts to act. However, currently Sport England denies any problem, passing these surfaces as safe.