Toxic rubber causes cancer concern over school sports pitch

The council and a local primary school want to rip up large areas of turf and replace it with all-weather sports pitches which are made from toxic material that international research has linked to hundreds of cases of cancer.
Our education correspondent, GENE BRODIE, reports

Lewis Maguire played on 3g pitches, and his cancer was linked to toxic rubber crumbs used on the pitches. Maguire was just 20 when he died earlier this year

The council planning committee will this week consider proposals for outline permission for the local authority’s application to build two artificial football pitches on its own green spaces on the playing fields on the Purley Way and in Ashburton.

The planning officers’ report is silent on the materials proposed to be used for the pitches.

In Waddon, a separate application has been made by the Minster Nursery and Infant Schools to rip up most of their grass playground and replace it with an artificial one, fenced off with a three-metre-high barrier. The Minster schools’ applicant answers “no” to the question “is any hazardous waste involved in the proposal?” and states that the materials to be used are “sand-dressed artificial turf”.

The headteacher of the Minster Junior School has been quoted as saying that the pitch would be a benefit to others in the community as well as the school. and gave the reassurance that “as far as I gather, there is no safety risk on it”.

Investigations by Inside Croydon have found that what is proposed at the Minster schools is a multi-use, all-weather playing surface which uses tiny crumbs made from recycled car tyres. The 3g pitches (“third generation Artificial Grass Pitches”), are specifically designed to require little maintenance, and to look and feel like grass and be playable in all weathers.

The Minster Schools before the new pitches, with real grass…

The trouble is that the rubber crumbs used on the pitches are made from recycled car tyres which can contain all sorts of toxic nasties.

There’s cadmium, lead and zinc, and – depending on what the tyres were made of and when – even asbestos-twin carbon nanotubes (CNTs), arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phthalates, volatile organic compounds and dioxin-like benzothiazole…

And that’s just a start of the toxic recipe. Of the 92 chemicals found within crumb rubber used for 3g sports pitches, 11 of them have been identified as known or suspected carcinogens.

Many of the other compounds present in crumb rubber have not been adequately tested for impact on human health.

… and after, with the artificial pitches

In America, research by campaigners has linked more than 200 cancer cases to players who have been exposed to rubber crumb used on synthetic pitches. Most of the victims have been football goalkeepers. Many of the victims have been teens or young adults.

In the Netherlands, Ajax, one of Europe’s top clubs, has taken the precautionary principle and told parents of children at their academy that these stars of the future would not be playing on any of the club’s 3g pitches with rubber crumb infill. The club has decided to remove the 3g pitches and replace them with more expensive, but non-lethal, alternatives.

Meanwhile, here in Britain, the government and sports industry have decided to ignore the risks and concerns, and instead side with the industry lobbyists who assure them there is no cause for alarm.

That has not persuaded concerned Waddon residents living near the Minster schools, or those with children attending the schools.

They are alarmed at the prospect of children being exposed to crumb rubber’s toxic materials, and their own health being put at risk even if they never play on the pitches.

Rainwater washes toxins from the rubber crumbs into water courses and adjoining land, while high summer temperatures and strong winds give everyone in the area the opportunity to breathe in dangerous chemicals.

Then there’s the need to top up the missing granules, which apart from being washed and blown away, get stuck to players’ clothing and so make their way into changing rooms and washing machines, so spreading the hazards far beyond the pitch.

3g pitches use rubber crumbs, like grains of sand, made from recycled tyres

Locals are also concerned that the Minster schools’ pitch is not being built to benefit the pupils as much as to boost school finances.

The planning application says the hours of use are “unknown” but neighbours have been given the reassurance that floodlights will be turned off automatically at 10pm. This is odd, given that the Nursery and Infant school caters for children under the age of seven years old. Even at the nearby Junior school the oldest pupils are only 11. It seems likely that the school is seeking to rent out its pitches outside school hours.

The Harris Academy in Purley already has a 3g pitch. The school proudly boasts that its 3g facility – complete with rubber infill in its surfaces which it declares “are regarded to be as safe (if not safer) than the real thing” – is open from 6pm to 10pm on weekdays and 9am to 9pm during weekends.

The potential danger of such pitches to children was highlighted earlier this year, when the former chief executive of the National Health Service in Cumbria, Nigel Maguire, appealed to the government to stop rubber crumbs being used on sports pitches.

His son Lewis trained on 3g pitches and died after a four-year battle against Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He never saw his 21st birthday.

A goalkeeper, Lewis would frequently swallow rubber crumb pellets when diving for the ball, or after games would find them lodged in grazes. His father said, “It is obscene so little research has been done. This multi-billion-dollar industry is conducting an industrial-scale experiment on our kids – it’s a scandal.”

Monetising school grounds might seem like a good idea. But the people living near the Minster schools are now concerned that their evenings and weekends are likely to be disturbed by people of all ages turning up in their cars to play football, and kicking up more than the metaphorical stink.

Whether Waddon councillors will side with the school or the residents remains to be seen, though as the council is pushing similar floodlit pitches on its own sites on the Purley Way and at Ashburton, following what it calls “a successful bid for funding from Sport England and the Football Association as part of their Parklife project”, this week’s planning committee’s decision could set an unhealthily dangerous precedent.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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3 Responses to Toxic rubber causes cancer concern over school sports pitch

  1. David Wickens says:

    When your car, motorcycle or bike tyres wear the very same chemicals are released as very small particles. In dry weather they go straight into the air alongside vehicle exhaust emissions. The use of rubber crumb in pitches is unlikely to make much difference to the overall exposure levels in an urban environment.

  2. Lewis White says:

    I am wondering if we will see a return now to the sand-filled carpets of what I think were dubbed “2nd Generation” pitches.

  3. dominicconrad says:

    I found the article worrying, although David Wickens does not think these pitches are a problem. Who gives the final say?

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