(c) ESPN E60: The Turf War

(c) ESPN E60: The Turf War

My two sons play soccer, my husband coaches soccer (and played himself until a couple years ago) and in our house there’s been a lot of discussion about how the synthetic turf fields are really hard on the joints. In fact, this is the reason my husband quit playing regularly in his league. Many professional soccer players will not ever play on synthetic turf and this is written into their contract.

But now there’s an even bigger health concern: The rubber crumbs these synthetic turfs are composed of. These rubber pellets contain 12 known carcinogens; including mercury, arsenic and lead.

The experts theorize they are toxic via inhalation and absorption through the skin. Remember that mucous membranes (nose, eyes, mouth, genitals), the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands are the highest absorption sites on the body.

Not surprisingly, the biggest cancer risk is to the goalie. Many goalies experience the rubber crumbs getting stuck in their eyes, inhaling them, or swallowing them. This video tells it all. You can watch the original (better quality) or this taped version:

Personally, if my son was a goalie, I would completely ban him from playing on synthetic turf. Thankfully, neither of my sons prefer playing in goal.

And as we live in the rainy Pacific Northwest, these synthetic turf fields are everywhere. So if our children refuse to quit soccer – or we don’t want them to quit soccer – what can we do to minimize their cancer risk?

How To Minimize the Health Risks of Synthetic Turf Fields

These are the TURF RULES we’ve put in place to protect our youngest (our eldest has since switched to mostly basketball):

1. Never play in goal – but if you insist, then at least wear eye goggles, and a mask over your nose and mouth is also be necessary (find a way to make it look cool!) – in addition to the gear listed below.

2. Do not lie, sit, or put your skin on the turf – stand up, or sit on a chair or bench instead.

3. Don’t play or goof around on the turf with your friends. Before or after the game, play somewhere else.

4. Keep the turf as far away from your skin, mouth, eyes, nose as you can, at all times.

5. Even in summer, wear leggings under your shorts, and/or play in knee sleeves or tube tensors so there is a barrier between your leg skin (especially knees which get skinned – open skin is more vulnerable) and the rubber crumbs.

6. Wear gloves (leather golf, horseriding, or batting gloves all work well) and a long sleeve shirt under your soccer shirt to protect your arms and hands when you get tackled or wipe out.

Of course, once you realize you’ve got to basically insulate your child from neck to shin to reduce exposure to these carcinogens, it’s time to buy the new gear needed to accomplish this!

So after spending 3 hours researching on Amazon (plain knees sleeves in youth size were the hardest to find) I’m going to give you the links to everything we ordered so you don’t have to do the same slog.

The leggings protect the upper legs and groin, because when you watch the slo-mo shots in the video above, you realize the tremendous amount of rubber crumb spray thrown up when they kick the ball! And the genitals (mucous membrane tissue) are one of the highest absorption sites on the body.

(c) ESPN E60: The Turf War video

(c) ESPN E60: The Turf War video

We purchased leggings, a long sleeve protective shirt, gloves, and knee sleeves (otherwise he’ll rip through the leggings in no time) to wear underneath his normal soccer kit. Here’s what we purchased on Amazon for him:

turf-hugo-gearMatman Neoprene Youth Knee Sleeve – there were LOTS of knee pads, compression sleeves and knee braces available. But I didn’t want to add to the bulk he was already wearing with shin pads. So I searched to find just a plain, flexible, fairly light – yet protective – pull-on knee sleeve that he can wear over top of his leggings. This extra layer on the knee is important not just to prevent his leggings from getting ripped, but also because his knees get scraped often and open skin is also a high absorption site – right into the bloodstream.

DeMarini Youth Superlight Batting Glove with Leather Palm – I prefer leather to synthetic whenever possible, because all synthetics are plastics and leach xenoestrogens and other endocrine disruptors into the body through the skin. I always try to get my kids to wear a cotton tank or t-shirt under their synthetic sport shirts – mostly they listen! And as I mentioned above, the soles of the feet (try to get mostly cotton socks) and palms of the hands are rapid absorption sites, so these gloves with leather palms are better than pure synthetic gloves and the backs of the gloves have tiny ventilation holes to help them stay cooler.

DRI-EQUIP Youth Long Sleeve Moisture Wicking Athletic Shirts – I bought 2 of these in different colors as they’re so cheap. He’ll wear a cotton t-shirt underneath and his soccer jersey over top. Once we’re into warmer weather he’ll switch to a 100% cotton long-sleeve shirt, with his soccer jersey over top.

Youth Sports Form Fit, Ankle Length Compression TightStay Dry and Cool During Football, Baseball, Dance, Track, and Soccer with Moisture Management and Anti-Microbial Technology. Hopefully these are not too hot for him during the summer. But if so, we’ll try just the knee sleeves with the tighter, jockey underwear to seal off the genital area. At least that will reduce the amount of skin exposed.

Don’t Bring It Home!

Now that we have our child protected as best we can during the play or practice, we have to look at what happens to all those rubber crumbs as he rides home in the car and then comes into the house!

Best is to take off cleats and shin pads at the soccer field, shake them out, bang them together to dislodge the toxic little particles and put them straight into the trunk. Have a pair of sneakers or flip-flops in the trunk for your child to wear instead.

Do the same with any other gear (chairs, balls, etc.) that were used at the turf. Otherwise, you will find those black rubber specks appearing on your seats, carpets, cup holders, etc. It is much easier to vacuum out the trunk area, then the entire car. This also prevents your other kids from being exposed/contaminated.

Brush off all clothing vigorously to dislodge any clinging particles before you and your child get in the car.

Remember the toxins in turf crumbs – mercury, aresenic, lead – it takes a super small amount of these substances to cause serious health issues, so you have to be rigorous about this.

Then, we have created a place in the garage for our son’s soccer gear (shin pads, cleats, balls) – basically anything that is not going in the laundry – to be stored until next use. That way, hopefully none of the black crumbs come into the house. If they do, vacuum them up right away.

Is There An Alternative?

Hopefully, as awareness of the health risks of rubber turf increase, we will be seeing more pushback from parents like these instances reported in the Huffington Post:

“In Swampscott last week, town meeting members approved plans to install a new synthetic field with silica sand, a more expensive product touted as a nontoxic alternative to the small rubber pellets known as crumb rubber ubiquitous on thousands of synthetic fields across Massachusetts and the nation.

In Medway, a small but vocal group of parents are pushing for warning signs to be installed near recently built artificial turf fields to warn parents about alleged health risks in the ant-size rubber pieces that cushion the bright synthetic grass.

And in Concord, more than 750 residents crowded into a heated town meeting in April to debate a two-year study and moratorium on artificial turf – a battle that crumb rubber opponents lost but left many energized and looking toward pushing for a statewide referendum.”

This is what keeps coming up in my mind: My husband Ian played on grass fields his entire childhood, teens and early twenties in the UK – one of the rainiest, muddiest places on the planet. And those fields got plenty of high volume traffic. Yet somehow all was fine with both the players and the fields.

Ian Thompson back in the days of grass fields!

Ian Thompson back in the days of grass fields!