Photo courtesy of Nancy Alderman

Debate over the safety of recycled rubber tire “crumbs” is growing. These ground-up rubber tire pieces are commonly used in synthetic turf fields as well as garden and playground mulch.

The Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed rubber play surfaces since 1991. However, EPA documents released under the Freedom of Information Act in January 2008 show EPA officials unwilling to confirm the safety of ground-up recycled rubber.

Proponents of crumb rubber say this relatively soft substance provides a safe landing for children when they fall down. This is particularly relevant for synthetic turf sports fields where preventing injuries to players is a serious concern.

Some prefer to use rubber garden mulch because it doesn’t break down as quickly as other mulches. Rubber mulch is widely available through stores such as Wal-Mart.

The problem with crumb rubber is that the recycled rubber tires from which it is made are known to contain heavy metals, carcinogens and intoxicants, such as benzene and carbon black. Environmentalists say this may mean increased risk, especially small children. There is also the potential for air and groundwater pollution.

“Those chemicals don’t go away just because your grind [the tires] up,” said Nancy Alderman, president of Environment and Human Health, Inc., a non-profit organization which has performed research and published a report on the possible dangers of crumb rubber.

About 40,000 rubber tires are used in just one synthetic field according to Field Turf, an artificial turf company.

“For the record turf benefits include the aforementioned cushion (less injuries); greater playability of fields year round; more true playing surfaces; cost benefits over time and environmental benefits,” Darren Gill, marketing director of Field Turf, said.

“There has been no shortage of studies that have examined everything from turf fiber to crumb rubber infill to air, water in surrounding areas, etc.,” Gill said. “In fact, the EHHI study referenced in the article is neither the only one relevant specifically to CT fields or even most recent—one earlier this year by environmental engineering firm Milone and MacBroom examined air quality, field temperature and water quality around local fields. With near unanimity the research supports the safety of turf.”

The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection has announced plans for a comprehensive study on crumb rubber. The report is due on Jan. 1, 2010.

The study will involve tests and readings at actual fields and laboratory analysis. Tests include air samples taken from playing fields during the hot summer months when the potential for contamination is highest. “It’s a very scientific method,” Dennis Schain, communications director of the DEP, said.

“While we think ample evidence already exists for those considering turf to make a decision on the merits of the product, we encourage the state of Connecticut to seek similar assurance and support,” Gill said.

In a press release announcing the study, former DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy said, “This study is being conducted to respond in a credible manner to concerns that many people have raised about the potential impact of the presence of crumb rubber on playing fields.”

The Connecticut Department of Public Health, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and the University of Connecticut Health Center will assist in the study.

The study will be funded with $245,000 available to DEP for special projects from the settlement of cases involving violations of environmental regulations.