The link between turf field and Cancer: Wheaton awaits findings from the EPA

The very ground you stand on could be killing you. Or, at least, this is a potential cause for worry for athletes who compete on synthetic turf fields.

Over the past few years, there have been mounting concerns that turf fields, on which children, collegiate and professional athletes compete and train, could be cancerous. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched an investigation in 2016 to find out if turf fields are really linked to a risk of cancer. The results, which were supposed to come last summer, have now been postponed for several years due to delays in the investigation. The implications of the study will be significant for all collegiate athletes, including those at Wheaton who compete on Nordin Field.

According to the EPA, there are over 25,000 synthetic turf fields across the U.S., and this number is growing by a couple thousand each year. Wheaton is among the colleges that have added a turf field relatively recently, as Nordin Field was completed in fall 2013. These fields are usually filled with rubber turf beads made from chopped up and recycled car tires, which may prove to be carcinogenic or cancerous.

Before exploring how and why turf fields might be worrisome, it is important to note all the good they do for the safety of athletes as well as in terms of convenience, especially at Wheaton. According to studies by the American Journal of Sports Medicine, turf fields prevent ligament injuries to athletes and pose far less of a threat to knee injuries compared to grass fields. Turf fields also can prevent concussions, especially since Nordin Field is a Legion 46 product, meaning it is high in safety and shock attenuation.

Additionally, turf fields are environmentally friendly. There is no need for harmful pesticides to make grass grow on synthetic fields, and turf beads are almost always made of recycled material. Consistency for players and coaches is also an advantage. “The benefit is [that] it gives you a consistent surface,” said Wheaton Athletic Director John Sutyak ’00. “That’s the intent of it.”

Despite these benefits, there have been concerns raised about the safety of turf fields. But first, certain knowledge of cancer is required to understand the risks. So, what exactly causes cancer?

According to Wheaton Professor of Biology Robert Morris, cells in human bodies are constantly dividing themselves. Cancer occurs when cells randomly start dividing abnormally or at an excessive rate.  Some things, such as carcinogens, increase the risk of this abnormal cell division.

“There are chemical or energetic agents that can act on cells and change their DNA structure,” Morris said. “We call it a mutation, and it is common; most [mutations] are harmless, but they are random. If you have enough of them, you’ll eventually get some that are bad. Statistically, you are going to get a bad die roll.”

Cancer is partially a game of chance. It is possible that carcinogens in burnt toast could give a person cancer, and there are carcinogens in a lot of things humans interact with. It is really about trying to limit exposure to things that are heavily carcinogenic.

Morris added, “We can avoid cancer by minimizing the amount of carcinogens [we contact]. They can lead to the mutations and genetic mistakes that cause uncontrolled cell division.”

The potential danger with turf, according to Morris, is that the chemical butadiene in the recycled tire turf crumbs is a “known human carcinogen.” Morris explained that turf beads also contain polyaromatic hydrocarbons, a type of chemical that can be absorbed very easily through skin and potentially be very damaging in the body or bloodstream.

If more physical contact with the turf beads themselves is what increases the risk of cancer, then the lacrosse and field hockey teams that practice on Nordin Field are at low risk due to their equipment and styles of their respective sports. However, those who train on the turf regularly or who play other sports may be at risk. “You come into contact with the turf the whole game, almost every play,” Wheaton men’s rugby captain Jason Gilbert ’19 said. “You get open scrapes contacting [the turf beads], which is even worse.”

Other players even reported swallowing turf beads and occasionally getting them in their eyes. Sutyak said, “Football and rugby [are two sports where players are] literally face first in the [turf beads], probably chewing on them sometimes.”

Members of Shaw Sports Turf, including their Director of Marketing Todd Britton and New England Territory Manager Joe Kacevich, declined to be interviewed about the potential link between turf fields and cancer.

The EPA’s study may clarify or confirm the worries of many people, including those at Wheaton. The Wheaton administration stated that it has looked into the link in question before; board members brought up the potential link during initial discussions of Nordin Field. “The thing to remember is that we worked with the information that was presented to us at the time,” Sutyak said about the installation of Nordin Field.

Sutyak added that if any astonishing evidence came out, measures would be taken. “Maybe we would be shutting the turf down—that would be an option,” said Sutyak. “Or limiting the [amount] of time people spend on it. It would be a pretty major issue.” Sutyak also said that there would be huge discussions within the conference if Wheaton refused to use turf, since many away games would include turf fields.

So, then, is the ground that Wheaton athletes compete on giving them cancer? The answer is in doubt and presumably will be as such for a while. It is still unclear how much the EPA studies will reveal or how conclusive they will be. Even so, it is likely that Wheaton will be paying attention to the results. “There needs to be an independent study and it needs to be a conversation on campus,” Sutyak said about the ongoing issue. “As things evolve, you always have to take a look.”