Do artificial 4G pitches cause cancer? Early research says no

Fears over rubber granules in surface allayed by European Commision study

The European Chemicals Agency has allayed health fears over synthetic sports pitches, with research showing that recycled tyre rubber, which is used extensively in artificial 3G and 4G pitches, poses a very low level of risk.

Following concerns last June, the ECHA were tasked by the European Commission with quantifying the potential ill effects of such pitches, which are now used by GAA, soccer and rugby players throughout Ireland.

Preliminary findings, based on studies conducted in recent months, conclude there is no cause for concern either for players or for workers who install and maintain the artificial surfaces.

Suspicion about the crumb rubber used in the surfaces initially arose when soccer players in the US reported a string of cancers – notably Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.


Amy Griffin, former World Cup winner and coach of the University of Washington women's soccer team, was visiting a female goalkeeper in hospital, when a nurse informed her that the previous week four goalkeepers had attended for chemotherapy.

Griffin subsequently compiled a list of the 38 soccer players she knew who had been diagnosed with cancer, and 34 of them were goalkeepers. By December 2016, the list had reached 186 players, 116 of whom were goalkeepers.

Last November the Netherlands’ Ajax academy De Toekomst removed their 3G pitches after the findings of a documentary on the Dutch public broadcaster NPO revealed serious shortcomings in the government-sponsored research in 2006 that had declared the rubber crumb to be safe.

Grass blades

In the UK the issue was highlighted by a former National Health Service chief, Nigel Maguire, who believed that contact with the rubber granules – which are used to hold the artificial grass blades in place and provide a cushioned surface – had caused his 18-year-old son Lewis to develop cancer.

The granules are known to contain a number of dangerous substances, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals, phthalates, volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic hydrocarbons (SVOCs).

Research began in both Europe and the US, with the primary questions focusing on exposure to the substances and whether the substances could move into the human body through skin contact, ingestion or inhalation from the air.

Following the studies, the ECHA has now moved to allay fears, stating: “The concern for lifetime cancer risk is very low given the concentrations of PAHs typically measured in European sports grounds.

“The concern from metals is negligible given that the data indicated that the levels are below the limits allowed in the current toys legislation.

“In the studies that ECHA evaluated, the concentrations of PAHs in recycled rubber granules were well below the limits set for carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic substances for consumers.”

However, several uncertainties in the evaluation were highlighted with the agency asking that rubber granules only with very low concentrations of hazardous material be supplied to pitch manufacturers.

Hygiene measures

They also recommend that players using the pitches should take basic hygiene measures such as washing their hands after playing on the field and before eating, quickly clean cuts or scrapes, take off their footwear and leave sports equipment and soiled uniforms outside to prevent bringing crumb rubber into the home.

Players that accidentally get crumb rubber in their mouths should not swallow it.

Data from the major synthetic turf manufacturers operating in the EU indicate that around 1,200–1,400 new football fields are installed every year in the EU with over 40 a year installed in Ireland. Figures show 30 GAA pitches are also laid annually.

By 2020, it is estimated that 21,000 full size pitches and about 72,000 mini pitches will exist in the European Union.

The studies covered approximately 50 samples taken from new recycled rubber granules and several hundreds of samples taken from more than 100 fields.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is expected to produce its report entitled ‘Recycled Tire Crumb Used on Playing Fields’ in late 2017. The US study is being conducted over a longer time period and it is expected that the conclusions of Europe’s evaluation will need to be reviewed when this report becomes available.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times