LEX 18 Investigates Update: State Reviewing Crumb Rubber Grant Program
Questions about state grants
The state of Kentucky is reviewing its practice of providing taxpayer-funded grants for the purchase of crumb rubber, a substance found on playgrounds and sports fields throughout the state that is made from shredded car tires.
LEX 18 Investigates reported last month on the controversial substance, which contains many of the same carcinogens and contaminates as tires. Our report followed a national NBC Nightly News story about crumb rubber on soccer fields, and a potential, but unproven, link to cancer.
Although the Synthetic Turf Council, a national industry group, says the product is safe – and many studies support their position, or are inconclusive – some parents and athletes have questioned the safety of the product after increasing anecdotal evidence of ties to certain blood cancers.
Spokespeople in the state's Energy and Environment Cabinet said officials have not decided if they would offer the grant next year. If they don't, it would be the first time in nearly a decade the grants weren't offered.
“The Division of Waste Management is reviewing the program and any existing studies regarding the use of crumb rubber,” said spokesman Dick Brown. “No decisions have been made and the division has not asked for applications to apply for the next round of funding.”
In the last nine years, the state has paid about $5.8 million in grants to provide crumb rubber mulch and turf infill at schools, parks, daycares, playgrounds and sports fields. Typically, the budget for grants is about $200,000 to $400,000 per year, according to state records.
Among the schools that have gotten crumb rubber grants is Augusta Independent in Bracken County. The state gave the elementary school $28,000 last year for the purchase of crumb rubber mulch for its playground, according to state records dug up by LEX 18 Investigates.
The school playground was in the news Thursday for other another reason; someone apparently set a fire there overnight, causing about $30,000 in damage to playground equipment and the crumb rubber mulch.
"I think it's very disheartening that, this close to Christmas time, someone would be so callous," Superintendent Lisa McCane told LEX 18.
At least one public health advocate says the state should stop funding crumb rubber purchases. Kentucky health consultant Carolyn Dennis said she will be lobbying in the General Assembly next year for more studies of crumb rubber and an end to the grant program.
“Kentucky is unfortunately gaining some notoriety in the area of synthetic turf, because we are one of four states that gives out grants to community schools, parks, to put in synthetic turf fields and playgrounds,” she said.
Dennis was interviewed by the Huffington Post recently for an upcoming national story about crumb rubber. The issue was brought to the forefront this year after news stories and anecdotal evidence of a high number of soccer players diagnosed with blood cancers.
In October, NBC Nightly News featured the story of Washington soccer Coach Amy Griffin, who began researching soccer players nationwide who had been diagnosed with cancer. Of the 38 players on her growing list, 34 were goal keepers - players most likely to come in close contact with crumb rubber turf while blocking shots and making saves.
In November, LEX 18 Investigates told the story of Morehead State student McKenzie Hicks, who had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma after playing soccer on artificial turf fields most of her life. Her identical twin sister, Molly, was never diagnosed with cancer, even though the two were exposed to almost all the same things.
"I've played soccer my whole entire life, and she has, too, except I've always played select soccer - real competitive soccer - and she took like five to six years off of competitive soccer to do cheerleading and other things," McKenzie Hicks said.
Crumb rubber infill used on football, soccer and baseball fields is typically very finely ground, compared to bigger chunks of tires used in rubber mulch. Most of Kentucky's grants have gone to fund the larger mulch for walking trails, playgrounds and landscaping projects, although the grant also funds the turf infill for artificial and natural grass fields.
Most studies have found little or no health or environmental risks, although most are limited - for example, a 2009 study by the Environmental Protection Agency measured only three fields. Levels of harmful chemicals in crumb rubber made from crushed tires can vary based on the types and manufacturers of tires.
The EPA notes that potentially harmful chemicals, such as lead, acetone, arsenic, benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, trichloroethylene, are often found in tires, "although not all are contained in all tires."
The lingering question is whether the harmful chemicals exist at unsafe levels. Dennis says crumb rubber should not be used until that question is clearly answered.
“The awareness that is coming out it is fairly recent, and we need to spread this concern and raise the alarm a little bit on behalf of all of us,” she said.