The European Commission has asked for the European Chemicals Agency to begin an investigation to establish whether the crumb rubber used as infill on scores of synthetic Gaelic, soccer and rugby pitches is hazardous to those who play on them.
After a meeting last Tuesday in Brussels between the expert group of competent authorities and a body called CARACAL, which advises the commission on chemical matters, it was decided that the growing concerns regarding the toxic material contained in crumb rubber should be further investigated.
Crumb rubber is used as infill on 3G and 4G pitches, which have been laid in clubs and leisure centres all over Ireland. The three major sports organisations, the IRFU, FAI and GAA as well as the Institute of Irish Sport use rubber infill turf.
The decision comes after the US Environmental Protection Agency along with two other US federal agencies launched an investigation into the rubber infill in February, saying "the existing studies do not comprehensively evaluate the concerns about health risks from exposure to tire crumb".
No time limit has been given to the European chemical agency to conduct its research, although, it is known that carcinogenic chemicals called PAHs are contained in the rubber as well as other toxic agents such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Mercaptobenzothiazole, which the World Health Organisation has recently said is probably carcinogenic, is also in the turf.
It is not fully understood what harm the chemicals do when they migrate from the rubber, which comes from recycled tyres, into the human body through inhalation, ingestion or via broken skin. Children would be more at risk than adults.
“The expert group of Competent Authorities for REACH and CLP (also known as “CARACAL”) which advises the commission met in Brussels and discussed . . . the issue of the presence of PAHs in rubber crumb originating from recycled tyres used as infill material in synthetic turf sports fields and their possible risk to human health,” said a commission spokesperson.
“In order to address the concerns discussed the commission will, as a next step, ask the European Chemicals Agency to start a procedure to determine whether rubber crumbs present an unacceptable risk to human health and, if so, which risk management measures to take.
“The commission takes any health concerns very seriously, and further actions will depend of the outcome of this assessment.”
It is the first time a focused European level investigation into the product has been undertaken and arrives after campaigns in both the UK and the US have provided circumstantial evidence linking the pitches to certain forms of lymphoma cancer.
Amy Griffin, a 1991 Fifa World Cup winner and goalkeeping coach for the US women's under-20 soccer team has compiled a list of cancer victims with links to playing on the rubber. As of 2015, her list of 200 athletes with cancer contained 150 soccer players, 95 of whom were goalkeepers.
Nigel Maguire, the former chief executive of the National Health Service in Cumbria, in the north of England, has launched the UK campaign. His son Lewis, a talented goalkeeper undertaking trials at Leeds United was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, stage IV.
On Wednesday in Asheville, North Carolina, plans to replace the artificial turf at the John B Lewis Soccer Complex in Asheville got under way following the launch of the US federal investigation and concerns from activists that the turf material causes cancer.
A number of Irish schools and colleges, who wish to remain anonymous, have delayed committing to the process of laying of rubber infill pitches until further research has been completed and the pitches have been shown to be non-hazardous.