A report on a possible link between a rare brain cancer that killed six professional US baseball players and toxic chemicals in artificial turf is raising a new round of questions over whether synthetic sports fields pose a health threat to athletes and others who use them.
The six athletes, who all died from glioblastoma, played most of their careers with the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that for decades competed on artificial turf in Veterans Stadium, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
All artificial turf is made with toxic PFAS compounds and some types are still produced with recycled tires that can contain heavy metals, benzene, volatile organic compounds and other carcinogens, and a growing number of US municipalities and states have banned or proposed banning them.
The Phillies players’ deaths are more evidence that regulators need to prohibit synthetic fields, said Kyla Bennett, a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist now with the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility non-profit.
“There is a high number of Philadelphia Phillies diagnosed with this rare cancer and it looks weird, so that should be a red flag,” said Bennett. “We don’t know what those chemicals are doing to us – what happened to exercising caution when we’re talking about human health?”
However, all brain cancer experts who have spoken with the Guardian or were quoted in previous stories on the Phillies deaths cautioned that it is impossible to prove that the ball players’ cancers were caused by PFAS from the turf.
“The bottom line is anything in the world is possible, but what’s plausible and provable are totally different things,” said Henry Friedman, a neuro-oncologist at Duke University who treated two of the players. “There is no way to now say, ‘If these chemicals are there, they are causing the tumors.’”
The federal government estimates about 12,000 synthetic turf fields exist in the US, and at least 1,200 more are installed annually. Only five professional baseball teams still use synthetic fields, the Inquirer reported.
Several layers comprise synthetic fields: plastic grass blades, plastic backing that holds the blades in place and infill that weighs down the turf. Until recently, infill was always made with recycled rubber tires called crumb rubber, which EPA testing has found contains high levels of dangerous chemicals.
Recent independent testing of multiple artificial fields has found the presence of highly toxic PFAS compounds like 6:2 FTOH and PFOS. The EPA recently revised its health advisory for PFOS to state that in effect no level of exposure to it in drinking water is safe. The Inquirer bought pieces of the Phillies artificial turf and had it tested at two labs, and found it contained 16 types of PFAS, including PFOS.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 12,000 chemicals often used to make products resist water, stains and heat. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down, and are linked to cancer, liver problems, thyroid issues, birth defects, kidney disease, decreased immunity and other serious health problems.
PFAS can be ingested, inhaled and absorbed through the skin – or even enter the body through open wounds.
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