A month after two Riverside residents asked the Riverside-Brookfield High School District 208 Board of Education to reconsider their decision to install a crumb rubber-based synthetic turf athletic field, the board has decided to stick with its original decision. 

In July, Mark Ranft and Rob Dixon raised concerns about the health effects of extensive exposure to the rubber granules that come from ground up tires and will form the base of the field that will be installed at RBHS later this month. 

They urged the board to reconsider its choice and consider alternatives, including a field made by Nike from ground up soles of athletic shoes, called Nike Grind. 

At the Aug. 11 school board meeting, Superintendent Kevin Skinkis read a statement from board President Mike Welch, who participated in the meeting by telephone, saying that the board looked at the issue again but is sticking with crumb rubber. 

Welch noted that the board has opted for an upgraded crumb rubber field.  

“We attempted to explore alternatives such as Nike Grind and an eco-fill,” Welch said in his statement. “The cost and time of procurement were not feasible for the project schedule and budget. We did review several documents and studies on both sides of the argument in regard to infill to ensure the infill was safe for our adolescents who will be using it.”

The crumb rubber-based field will cost $423,814, which includes a 10-year warranty and a $17,657 upgrade for portions of the field to be fabricated in a warehouse. A field made of Nike Grind would cost $109,201 more than the crumb rubber-based field. 

Synthetic turf fields have become the norm in schools because they can stand up to heavy use much better than grass fields and thus can be used more often.

The base of the field that will be installed at RBHS is a mixture of ground up tires and sand. Crumb rubber-based fields are common throughout the country and have been installed regularly since the early 2000s, including at many Chicago area high schools. 

But some claim that the crumb rubber fields can cause a greater risk of cancer to those who play on them. An NBC news report last fall and a CBS Chicago investigative report in June aired those concerns.

Critics of crumb rubber fields say that soccer goalkeepers, who dive on the turf a lot, could be especially at risk. Amy Griffin, an assistant soccer coach at the University of Washington, has been trying to keep a count of soccer players who have played on crumb rubber and developed cancer. 

Griffin says that she knows of 204 soccer players who have been diagnosed with some form of cancer after playing on crumb rubber fields. She says that of the 127 soccer players who played on crumb rubber fields and developed lymphomas, 85 were goal keepers.

“You see elite soccer players who spend a lot of time on these fields getting sick,” Dixon told the school board in July. “You can’t ignore that. I would hope that the precautionary principle would prevail.”

Nancy Alderman, the president of the Connecticut-based Environmental and Human Health advocacy group points to a Yale University study that classified some of the chemicals present in crumb rubber as carcinogens.

“The product, in our opinion, is toxic and we know that being exposed to more than carcinogen at a time is more dangerous than being exposed than just one and there are a myriad of carcinogens in these fields,” Alderman said.

However, defenders of crumb rubber-based fields say no link has ever been scientifically proven between crumb rubber and cancer. They say the fields are safe.

Dr. Laura Green, a Massachusetts-based toxicologist, criticized the Yale study in a comment she presented to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission that she prepared at the request of a company that makes crumb rubber mulch for playgrounds. 

She said the Yale study has not been published or peer reviewed and criticized aspects of the study. She noted that Griffin’s reports of soccer players coming being stricken by cancer must be viewed in context and they alone prove nothing.

“Overall, then, the evidence on crumb rubber and rubber mulch does not suggest, let alone demonstrate, that rubber mulch poses a significant risk to the health of children or others,” Green wrote.

Many communities have been wrestling with the issue. The Park District of Oak Park installed two crumb rubber-based youth soccer fields in the last couple of years, but they decided to switch to Nike Grind for the two fields being installed this fall at the two middle schools in Oak Park.

Diane Stanke, the director of marketing and customer service at the Park District of Oak Park said that decision to go with Nike Grind was because it is more “environmentally friendly” than crumb rubber.  

This year some residents of Glen Ellyn sued to try to stop the Glen Ellyn Park District from putting in a crumb rubber athletic field at a local park. But in June, DuPage County Circuit Court Judge Bonnie Wheaton ruled that the park district could go ahead and install the field, ruling that the health concerns about crumb rubber presented by the plaintiffs were speculative and not based on evidence.

However, the state of Kentucky has halted a program that gave state grants to counties and local communities to install crumb rubber based fields.

 “We didn’t really find a lot to be particularly concerned about, but just from some public concerns and questions that arose we opted to put that part of the grant on hold,” said Gary Logsdon of the Kentucky Division of Waste Management “It’s possible that we’ll start it up again in the future if we get more evidence one way or the another. We never really saw any data that was particularly concerning, but we’re not really experts in risk assessment.”

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