Vancouver Park Board tries new artificial turf following cancer claims

After controversial claims the crumb rubber infill typically used in artificial turf causes cancer, the Vancouver Park Board is trying out a new infill product at the Kerrisdale multi-use park.

A synthetic product will replace crumb rubber in the Kerrisdale multi-use park

The Vancouver Parks Board is looking to replace the crumb rubber pellets pictured here. Made from recycled tires, the product has been linked to anecdotal claims it causes cancer in recent years. (CBC)

The Vancouver Park Board is trying out a new infill product for artificial turf in response to controversial claims that the current crumb rubber infill product could be carcinogenic.

The new turf product will be installed in the Kerrisdale multi-use park as part of the park's upgrades.

The board has chosen to replace the crumb rubber with a thermoplastic elastomer — a brand new, synthetically produced compound mix of plastic and rubber that produces less heat and is fully recyclable.

Vancouver Parks Board chair Sarah Kirby-Yung says the new infill for the artificial turf will be more durable and retain less heat. (CBC)

But Vancouver Park Board chair Sarah Kirby-Yung says while health concerns were an important consideration, they also took into account durability and player experience.

"We're assured there are no serious health concerns at this time — but we thought it was a good time for us to trial another product and see how it holds up from a durability and players' perspective."

Cancer concern

The crumb rubber product has been the target of concern in recent years, particularly after a series of U.S. reports.

Originally, the pellets were considered an environmental success story because they diverted thousands of tires from the landfill and reduced the need for fertilizers, pesticides and water, while providing a year-round playing surface.

However, an in-depth 2014 NBC investigation and a 2015 ESPN documentary collected anecdotal evidence that suggested a possible link between the rubber pellets and cancer.

The investigations prompted the U.S. government to launch a federal investigation into the safety of crumb rubber.

Board, parents weigh the risks

As a result, parents in Vancouver have expressed concern about the ubiquitous product — with one Vancouver Island parent starting an online petition to stop its use.

It even prompted the Vancouver Park Board to seek the advice of Vancouver Coastal Health when upgrading the Kerrisdale field.

In a March 2016 letter to the Vancouver Park Board, Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly wrote that "serious health risks, including cancer, are not increased from playing on synthetic turf fields with crumb rubber infill", while also saying she would look at incoming U.S. research for any evidence to the contrary. 

Despite the vote of confidence, Kirby-Yung said the Board simply wanted to be "proactive and take a leadership role" by trying out the new infill product.

And it's something that some parents appreciate.

UBC cancer researcher and soccer parent Trevor Dummer says it's unclear whether there's merit to the claims that crumb rubber causes cancer, but says "if there is an alternative that's as good as we what we already have, but doesn't come with the possibility that there is a health concern, then yes, that's great, and that's reassuring for parents".

UBC cancer researcher and soccer parent Trevor Dummer says there needs to be more evidence to support claims that crumb rubber causes cancer. (CBC)

In the meantime, Dummer recommends that parents use common sense and limit exposure to the material by:

  • Making sure children don't eat the pellets.
  • Don't get them in their eyes.
  • Shower as soon as they are done playing.

It might be a precaution parents will have to take for a while as the other artificial fields — Vancouver has ten more — will need further board approval if they are to be replaced.