Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Artificial turf. Cancerous?

Once upon a time, artificial turf was a terrific invention, especially when it came to sports fields. At least for the people that had to pay for such things.

Unlike natural grass, obviously there was no need for watering, mowing, fertilizing, and de-weeding. As anyone who has ever had a yard well knows, if you've got grass -- you're going to get various weeds -- particularly dandelions. And if you've got a stadium that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build in the first place, having your "lawn" sprinkled with dandelions wouldn't exactly look good on TV. The cameras would do zoom shots, and the talking heads would make you a laughing stock on the airwaves. Not good.

So a natural grass field requires a "grounds crew" to maintain it. In baseball, we typically only see these folks when they're rolling out the tarp when a game is delayed due to rain. But make no mistake, the grounds crew stays busy behind the scenes as well doing all the above chores to keep the field looking pristine.

And consider how bad a natural grass field gets chewed up during the course of a college or pro football game. Like a golf course after tournament pros have played four rounds of action, there's divots everywhere, similar to pot-holes on Michigan roads. You've seen it. The potholes aside, somebody has to fix these lawns, hence the grounds crew. They stay busy.

Artificial turf pretty much eliminates the need of such a crew. Expensive to install in the first place, but a long-term money saver.

Yet there's a couple drawbacks to artificial turf. Originally, it consisted of a mere half inch of foam rubber padding with some fake grass on top. Underneath it was solid concrete. While it looked pretty to the fans, football players didn't like it. When crashing to the ground, it was HARD. Plus, their cleats actually gripped TOO well. Sudden attempted changes of direction resulted in a lot of knee and ankle injuries. Natural grass has some "give" to it. Turf did not.

Then somebody came up with the brilliant idea of shredding up old tires to mix in with the fake grass. It had more "give" to it and was actually eco-friendly. After all, countless millions of worn out tires accumulate every year and nobody had ever really figured out a good way to dispose of them. And they're free. People just wanted rid of them. So mixing them in with "turf" seemed like a great idea. A win-win.

But as it turns out, maybe not. Recently, concerns have arose as to whether those little black dots we see scuffed up on the fields might actually be cancerous. Yours truly is certainly no tire expert, but a preliminary search shows there's a lot of nasty compounds that go into making the rubber that meets the road.

None of this matters, as long as they're tires. We put them on our vehicles and drive until they're worn out, then buy new ones. No harm done. It's not like we chop up our old ones and sprinkle them over our Frosted Flakes in the morning.

But shredding them into tiny bits and putting them on athletic fields has opened another can of worms. After the shredding process itself, who can be sure some of the above-mentioned nasty chemicals won't come back into play for those that are constantly exposed to them?

Remember asbestos? It was cheap, very effective, and used in thousands of heat-related products. Nobody knew the dangers until people started dying decades later. DDT was great for killing unwanted pests, until somebody figured out it was killing humans too. Those, and other various concoctions along the way came, were effective for their initial purposes, eventually found to be hazardous to human health, and finally banned entirely.

This is not to conclude that recycled shredded tires on athletic fields pose an elevated risk of future cancers. But recent studies are beginning to point that way, particularly amongst younger athletes who haven't fully matured and have been constantly exposed since childhood to whatever is in those tires.

There's been a mini-spike in symptoms that could be attributed to the chemicals contained within tires. They include---

Adverse affects on the respiratory system.
Irritation of the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes.
Liver and kidney problems.
Neurotoxic symptoms.
Allergic reactions.
And yes, various associated cancers.

Of course, the powers that be steadfastly maintain (see the almighty buck) there is insufficient data, and certainly no medical proof that kids wallowing around in and inhaling used tire dust is detrimental to their health.

But hypothetically speaking -- what if it turns out those shredded tires really ARE causing a variety of maladies, and, god forbid, wind up being the next asbestos or DDT? These days everybody is quick to jump on the blame-game bandwagon. Somebody must be at fault. Crucify them -- at least financially. Yet in this scenario, the only way it becomes someone's fault is if they knew that stuff was harmful, but continued using it anyway. That likely won't be known for at least a few more years until more studies have been completed.

However, if those studies eventually make using shredded tires on athletic fields akin to Agent Orange, then obviously major changes will have to be made. And it's no secret how the government typically overreacts when they have a "crisis" on their hands. Tons of new rules and regulations, which might well include banning artificial turf entirely, even the old stuff that didn't HAVE tires in it.

Here's hoping not. But if so, perhaps something good will come of this. The return of natural grass, from preps to pros, which means the return of the grounds crews to maintain it.

And that means more jobs. Always a good thing.....

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