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Artificial turf debate turns to health impacts

No decisions made on material, but questions remain over crumb rubber infill



While the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has yet to settle on a location or material for its artificial turf field, some concerns have been raised about potential health impacts around crumb rubber infill commonly used on such fields.

Several media stories in recent years have linked the material to increased rates of cancer in field users, and particularly goalies, though no studies have found a definitive connection.

At the April 11 council meeting, former teacher and long-time local resident Dawn Titus took the podium to voice her concerns about the project.

Titus cited quotes from researchers such as Simon Fraser University's Dr. Bruce Lanphear — who has called for a moratorium on the use of crumb rubber infill — and Yale University's Gaboury Benoit, who referred to the turf as a "witches' brew of toxic substances," after a 2015 study.

"Using toxic turf in our community would be an experiment in our children's health," Titus said. "It's dangerous, it's too expensive, and it's not one of the prioritized needs of our community. How can something like this even be considered when it does not meet specifically any of the conditions of The Natural Step, which is part of the comprehensive sustainability plan in the Whistler 2020 plan that we have?"

General manager of resort experience Jan Jansen noted a standard Whistler 2020 analysis was included in the March 7 council report (which can be found at, and that a thorough investigation has taken place in terms of alternatives to crumb rubber.

In an email ahead of the meeting, PJ O'Heany, president of the Whistler Youth Soccer Club (WYSC), noted that the RMOW has allocated extra funds to cover alternatives to crumb rubber infill.

"There are seven non-toxic and organic alternatives that do cost more initially and then do not last as long, but of course this can be worked into the budgeting," O'Heany said. "The WYSC is also very keen to minimize any risk to our children's health both real and perceived. We support the extra funds needed to provide a safe alternative to crumbed rubber."

The project has $3.9 million budgeted for its construction next year, though the cost could be closer to $3 million depending on the location chosen.

Alternatives to crumb rubber cost about $150,000 to $200,000 per field.

The perceived health concerns with crumb rubber have been making headlines for some time now.

In May of 2016, The City of Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation opted to replace one of its aging synthetic fields using a thermoplastic elastomer infill rather than crumb rubber.

The board discussed the health concerns, and appealed to synthetic turf consultants as well as Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.

In a letter to the board, Daly concluded that "serious health risks, including cancer, are not increased from playing on synthetic turf fields with crumb rubber infill," and that "there is no public health reason for discontinuing the use of synthetic turfs," while also saying she would continue to monitor ongoing research out of the U.S.' Environmental Protection Agency.

A comprehensive study is expected from the American agency this summer.

But the problem with crumb rubber infill is that the studies that need to be done to prove it's not toxic or that it's safe simply haven't been done yet, said Lanphear, one of the world's top researchers on lead poisoning.

"We know it does contain toxic material, that's not a question. The only question is to what extent will exposure occur, particularly as it wears down over time," Lanphear said, adding that if the companies selling the product really believe it's safe, they should put their money where their mouth is.

"Ask them to sign a legal memorandum, saying that if health effects do occur that they will be legally responsible down the road. Ask them to sign a legal memorandum that if it becomes costly to dispose of it because it's shown to be toxic, they will legally be responsible," he said.

"If that happens, I might even consider it, if I was in charge of making those decisions."

In a discussion later in the meeting about the budget, Councillor Jen Ford said she still has a lot of questions about the project.

"I am vehemently opposed to more fossil fuel production for the harms that it poses to the future of our planet. I hate plastic and I fear what happens when the plastic field sits under snow for a winter, and where the parts of broken turf and leached dyes go into the water table, and then into our drinking water," Ford said.

"On the other side I do see the value in upkeep of our infrastructure, (but) I think we need greater community support of a project with this kind of spend, so I would ask that when the time comes that we have a better understanding of the actual product that will be installed, the cost of it, the health cost of it, and a report on how many other communities have the same product with their respective longevity, and basically the time that it will take for that product to be recycled or to be replaced."

The preferred infill option will be settled on at one of two points, said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden: Either when the location is decided (sometime before the end of Q2 2017) or when the construction contract is awarded (Q4 2017).