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Legal Updates

Artificial Turf: Fertile Ground For Litigation?

Controversy over the safety of artificial turf is gaining traction. At issue is the turf’s infill – tiny black “crumbs” made from ground up rubber tires – which may contain hazardous metals, chemicals, and carcinogens. Whether this infill presents a risk of harm from inhalation, ingestion, physical contact, or runoff into the environment is a hot topic of debate. And where there is a risk of harm, there is a risk of liability.

Independent schools with synthetic playing fields should take stock of this risk, as anecdotal observations of a potential link between crumb-rubber turf and cancer in athletes, particularly soccer goalies, is garnering media attention and fueling public concern. This makes lawsuits against independent schools based on tort and product-liability theories possible, if not inevitable. Accordingly, independent schools should closely monitor this matter and consider the action steps outlined below.

Artificial Turf

Artificial turf was developed in the 1960s. Initially called “ChemGrass,” artificial turf was, in effect, a thin carpet of artificial grass rolled onto a concrete foundation. After the product was installed in the Houston Astrodome in 1966, it became known as “AstroTurf.” A major disadvantage of this product was its hard surface, leading to concussions and other injuries for athletes who fell down on it, particularly in contact sports.

Over the years, manufacturers focused on providing better cushioning, leading to the advent of crumb rubber, or ground up automobile tires, as a component of artificial turf. By replacing the cement base layer with more pliant materials and adding crumb rubber as infill, manufacturers developed a durable product that felt relatively natural and provided a softer landing. The use of crumb rubber was viewed as a “win-win-win,” benefiting the environment by removing used tires from landfills, benefiting industry by revitalizing artificial turf, and benefiting the public by enabling playing fields where they did not exist naturally.

For some independent schools, artificial turf became an attractive alternative to real grass. In this regard, synthetic fields do not require harmful fertilizers or herbicides, have low maintenance costs, provide opportunities for more field time, and offer a stable and cushioned playing surface.

Health And Safety Concerns

In recent years, questions about the health and safety effects of crumb-rubber infill have emerged. On hot days, crumb rubber can emit an odor reminiscent of hot tar or burning tires. In addition, student athletes who routinely dive or fall onto the turf may return home with rubber pellets in their abrasions and on their skin, hair, and clothing.

Some also question whether artificial turf poses dangers for those off the field. In this regard, it has been suggested that metals such as zinc, selenium, and lead could leach from the tire crumbs into the environment, or that storm-water runoff could pick up metals, chemicals and artificial materials found in the turf and contaminate nearby bodies of water used for drinking, fishing, and recreational activities.

At this point, studies have not definitively linked contaminants in crumb rubber to elevated health risks, such as cancer or other illnesses. But they have illustrated the complexity of the issue.

Litigation And Media Attention

In 2009 and 2010, the California Attorney General’s Office sued manufacturers of artificial turf, alleging that they failed to warn the public about lead in the turf’s synthetic fibers, used as a color stabilizer. In the ensuing settlement, the manufacturers agreed to reduce their use of lead in the synthetic fibers and to replace the artificial turf in fields considered to be unsafe. Other similar lawsuits in California are pending.

These lawsuits and the related groundswell of public concern have led to heightened media attention on this issue. For instance, NBC News recently published a lengthy piece in which a university soccer coach compiled a personal list of 38 American soccer players who have been diagnosed with cancer. Notably, 34 of these 38 soccer players were goalies, fueling the speculation that crumb rubber is carcinogenic to student athletes who routinely fall and abrade themselves on artificial turf. In January 2015, the State of Connecticut issued a circular letter dismissing the concerns raised in the NBC article for lack of scientific support and maintaining its position that outdoor artificial turf fields do not represent an elevated health risk.

As might be expected, personal-injury law firms are viewing this as a fertile new area of litigation, actively seeking plaintiffs for class-action and individual lawsuits based on illnesses allegedly caused by crumb-rubber fields. Whether the anticipated lawsuits will name schools and other end users as defendants remains to be seen, so all institutions with crumb-rubber fields should consider taking steps to eliminate or reduce any potential liability.

Recommended Action Steps

In light of the potential health and litigation risks associated with crumb rubber, independent schools considering installation of artificial turf should carefully consider their options. Those that already have artificial turf on campus should consider the following steps:

  • Alert the Board of Trustees of the issue and the potential for related advocacy among parents, alumni, employees, or others associated with the school;
  • Contact the manufacturer and turf installer to obtain written information about the type of artificial turf on campus and whether the infill is made from recycled rubber tires;
  • Review the scientific literature available regarding the risks and benefits of using rubber infill as well as any alternative products;
  • Retain an expert to guide the school and answer questions about the potential health risks posed by playing on artificial turf fields;
  • Educate faculty, students, and families about best practices for removing crumb-rubber particles from skin, hair, and clothing;
  • Adopt guidelines for eating on artificial turf and regulate how players should hydrate, such as requiring water to be in closed containers; and
  • Continue to monitor developments on both the safety and legal fronts so as to remain up-to-date on all pertinent best practices.

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If you have any questions or concerns about artificial turf on your campus, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Firm’s Education Practice Group.