West Ada taps 3 to study artificial turf on district fields

Concerns are being raised nationwide and here at home about the safety of artificial turf fields made from recycled tires.

BOISE - Crumb rubber athletic fields. There are thousands of them around the country and over a half dozen of them here in southern Idaho. Synthetic blades of grass peppered with millions of tiny rubber pellets made from ground up tires serving as the infill to make the surface safe.

The tire making process requires a carcinogenic gas to be injected into the rubber to form the compound. Toxicologists say the gas is locked in and cannot be extracted. Some aren't convinced.

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A recent NBC News series citing cancer concerns has given some parents and administrators reason to take a closer look at all of this. And with the state's largest district looking at replacing the three crumb rubber fields it installed eight to 10 years ago, they are closely reviewing the data.

The fields are used for football, lacrosse, soccer and P.E. Grass fields could never hold up to that constant regimen and so the decision to stay with a synthetic surface is the path they would prefer to follow.

NBC News first did the story of University of Washington assistant soccer coach Amy Griffin in 2014.

She says after one of her former goalies was diagnosed with cancer and later died, she started documenting how many other high school and college goalkeepers around the country who played on crumb rubber fields have been diagnosed with cancer. Griffin claims she has found over 60.

"Hearing the anecdotal stories of those soccer players was concerning, but at the same time I didn't have any reference to that within our district," said West Ada Athletic Director Scott Stuart.

Stuart heads up a three person task force tapped to research and analyze the best product for the three district high schools that have synthetic turf. That decision will be made in a presentation to the school board in two weeks.

And unless new information is released before then the decision looks to be headed back to crumb rubber.

"Over the past 10 years we didn't have any concerns from parents, players or any reports of cancer through our synthetic turf fields," said Stuart.

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"I was racking my brain today and talking to other people and we can't find anybody in all those players that have gone through Eagle who have come down with anything or who have ever raised a concern," said Kevin Plew, a parent of an Eagle High School student and turf task force member.

It's a sentiment we heard from everyone we spoke to.

Longtime Eagle girls soccer coach Stephanie Fornander said the only issues she's ever seen in the daily practices and games is an occasional wound infection.

The Boise School District has two crumb rubber fields - at Donna Larson Park and East Junior High. District Athletic Director John Ruzicka said he has never heard a concern from a parent or coach but also said he is closely looking at all of the studies.

The same response from Boise State Athletic Director Curt Apsey, who said they were aware of the stories that have surface but none of them pertained to "The Blue."

Boise State installed its first crumb rubber field 14 years ago.

But, a cloud hangs over every decision to put in another one of these fields.

The Environmental Protection Agency has refused to come out with a definitive statement as to the safety of the product - something NBC has tried repeatedly to get them to do.

In a statement last week, the EPA recommended more research on the subject.

"EPA supports more comprehensive efforts to identify potential exposures to tire crumbs and better assess risks," the statement reads. "As new questions arise, new data and analysis are needed. That's why, in response to recent concerns, a plan to identify gaps in research was developed and work is now underway."

Seattle toxicologist Mike Peterson has done extensive independent testing on crumb rubber and its properties. His finding have been published.

"Pretty much across the board there has been findings of no concern for health effects," said Peterson.

That didn't stop a group of parents and neighbors who protested the installation of a crumb rubber surface in a Seattle suburban park last summer; Or citizens in New York City who convinced local parks leaders to hold off on installing them on public grounds.

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But, that feeling is not held by the West Ada Field Task Force, which looks to be going back to what they believe is best for their budget and their kids.

"Seems to be its situational," said parent and task force member Jason Sever. "It's unfortunate but it really doesn't apply here."

The task force buoyed by a final comment from Peterson.

"Based on the best information available currently, there is no indication that there is a risk for health effects for either children or adults using these surfaces," he said.