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Turf fields: No hard data says they're unsafe

Herald editorial board

Artificial playing surfaces continue to be installed throughout the Dakotas and Minnesota, bringing consistency to high school and college sports events and marching band competitions.

Are those surfaces safe? As these fields now number more than 12,000 across the nation, concerns are arising that the materials used to create them may have a link to cancer.

We, however, have not yet seen hard data that shows parents should be concerned by the increased use of these high-tech playing surfaces, which look like traditional grass fields but are generally oblivious to rain and seasonal wear and tear.

The fields are a luxury, yet becoming more prevalent throughout the region. In Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, local high school football and soccer teams play their home games on artificial surfaces. Cushman Field in Grand Forks was converted to turf in 2011. East Grand Forks converted its field from grass to artificial turf in 2016.

Most colleges play on artificial turf, including UND and NDSU. Mayville State is adding turf for this season, hoping the new surface will improve player safety, aesthetics and recruiting at the school. High school teams will benefit in Mayville, too.

Players enjoy the fields because they are spongy, dry and perfectly flat. Schools enjoy them because they have relatively little upkeep — no mowing, painting, fertilizing or watering required — and they do not wear out during a season due to overuse.

It's an odd coincidence that these new fields are quickly gaining in popularity even as worries mount that they are not safe for the players who use them.

Since the fields use ground rubber — actually crumbs from recycled tires — some believe they are a health hazard. Most of the concerns arise from a group of soccer players — specifically goalies — who have developed cancer and who share a background of playing artificial turf.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Consumer Product Safety Commission began a study on artificial turf and the health questions that surround it. That report is expected later this year. The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, in a recent report, noted that regional health provider Sanford does not believe there is enough evidence to show a correlation between turf and cancer. Considering the lack of better evidence, we agree with Sanford's response.

We note that no suspicious links seem to exist between turf fields and, say, NFL players, who spend countless hours practicing and playing on them. Too, even as local and regional entities install turf fields, high school athletes actually don't spend much time on them. The football teams at Grand Forks Red River and Central, for example, only play four or five games apiece at Cushman Field and don't often practice there.

Further research is being conducted at places like Yale, the University of Washington and the Connecticut Department of Health, and that's good. A cancer cluster—a seemingly high number of cancer cases in a specific group of people — always deserves investigating, even though the vast majority of such clusters turn out to be due to chance.

As yet, nobody has definitively linked turf fields to cancer. But concerns exist and parents understandably worry, which makes this an issue that requires more consideration.