The rubber pellets used on rubber-crumb fields at Trillium Park in Vancouver on June 27.
Jason Payne / PNG
Concerned citizens are pushing the Vancouver park board to scrap synthetic playing fields in the city, citing the uncertain health impact of their crumb-rubber fillings.Marlene Cummings is worried that the crumbs, which contain carcinogens, could be accidentally ingested by children playing on the field or leak into water systems.“If we’re doing harm to children, it stops there for me,” says Cummings.Last month, Cummings and two other community members sent samples of the pellets from Vancouver Technical School and Trillium Park to labs in Surrey and Burnaby, respectively. Tests found 15.9 micrograms of lead-per-gram at Vancouver Technical and 12 at Trillium, both well under the regulatory limit of 90 established by the Federal Canada Consumer Product Safety Act.Cummings says any lead is too much.“There’s not enough studies out there and gaps in the information,” says Cummings. “We take the opinion that they (the city) have taken the big leap that because there’s not enough information there, it’s safe to use.”There are 12 synthetic fields in Vancouver, with another to be installed at Winston Churchill Secondary in the coming months.Medical consensus on risks posed by crumb fields has yet to be reached.In a 2016 letter to the park board, Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer Patricia Daly wrote that “serious health risks, including cancer, are not increased” by the fields.In 2015, after an NBC report linking incidences of blood cancers in young people to time they spent on crumb-rubber soccer fields, the U.S. National Toxicology Program launched a research program into whether exposure to rubber crumb could increase incidences of disease. The study isn’t yet complete.Dr. Trevor Dummer, a health geographer and epidemiologist at the University of B.C., says the cancer risk is “negligible,” but that more studies are needed to assess the impact of lead.“I don’t think there’s evidence specifically related to cancer that says we need to stop doing this,” he said.A report released by Health Canada in 2013 found lead in play areas was correlated with increased levels of lead in blood, which carries a range of potential impacts on kids’ brains and nervous systems.Artificial-turf fields provide five times more recreational time than grass ones or as much as 80 hours of playing time a week.Data from the City of Vancouver shows that in 2017 eight of the 11 full-sized synthetic fields in Vancouver were used on 80 per cent or more of all days in the year. Trillium had nearly 100 per cent of its prime hours used.The fields are replaced roughly every 10 years and are cheaper to maintain than grass fields — but the demand for them hasn’t eased concerns.“I was reading a public-health officer letter that said, ‘There’s no proof this stuff causes cancer,’ but on the other hand it said, ‘Don’t let your kids eat off the surface and make them shower right after using it,’ ” said park board commissioner John Irwin. “To me, that doesn’t sound like an endorsement of overall safety.”Irwin says there are other concerns around artificial fields, noting they take up public green space — a concern Cummings echoes.“The players want to have playing-field access, but we have to balance that out with other demands people have for open green space in a city with an increasing population,” said Irwin.He’s directed staff to assess alternative fillings, like organic pellets made from sand or coconut fibre.In the meantime, he wants to “press pause” on any future rubber-crumb fields until studies are completed.“We should make sure we’ve got the best, most recent science and that we know what we’ve already got on our hands and don’t actually grow the problem,” Irwin said.