All weather pitch health risks

Campaigners say they pose risks to players

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Parents and teachers have spoken out about the health and environmental risks of artificial sports pitches after Boris Johnson announced plans to build thousands of them for England’s bid to host football’s 2030 World Cup.

Artificial turf allows games to go ahead that would otherwise be postponed. But so-called 3G pitches are often made from used car tyres and contain chemicals such as lead, mercury and benzene. In the Netherlands more than 100 clubs have banned their use for youth games after analysis of 60 showed carcinogen levels to be up to six times higher than would be allowed for consumer products.

There are currently 4,853 3G fields across the UK, with the government planning to build 2,000 more. But the English Football League (EFL) has outlawed artificial pitches.

In 2013, Lewis Maguire, 13, from Darlington was half way through a 12-week trial as a goalkeeper for Leeds United when he was forced to quit after he became unwell. He was found to have developed Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of blood cancer. His father, Nigel, quit as chief executive of NHS Cumbria to look after Lewis, who died in 2018.

In 2016, Nigel Maguire wrote to sports minister Tracey Crouch highlighting the developments in the Netherlands as well as research by former US international goalkeeper Amy Griffin. Of 150 footballers who had played regularly on 3G fields and had cancer, Griffin discovered that more than 100 were goalkeepers – a position that means the player will be in contact with the pitch surface more than other players.

Acting sports minister David Evennett replied that football authorities “adhere to the latest independent evidence, which indicates that 3G pitches … are safe”.

Maguire remains unconvinced. He wants to see a moratorium on the construction of any 3G pitches, the replacement of rubber with inert materials such as cork and coconut fibres and to ensure that young goalkeepers no longer practice on such fields.

“It is industrial dumping as these pitches won’t last any length of time before they aren’t fit to play any sports on.”

He called on the Football Association to ensure coaches make players shower after playing or training on 3G pitches, to remove rubber crumb from their bodies and equipment.

Others point out that 3G pitches only last around 10 years. Viv Mitchell, whose local council built a 3G pitch close to her home in Northampton, pointed out that companies in the Netherlands had refitted pitches in Africa rather than disposing of them responsibly at the end of their life. She calculated that the pitch close to her contained 20,000 tyres.

“This is going to be a lot of plastic waste and rubber crumb going to landfill every 10 years,” she said. “It is industrial dumping as these pitches won’t last any length of time before they aren’t fit to play any sports on.”

In reply to Big Issue North’s detailed list of questions, a spokesperson for Defra, the government department responsible for sports fields, said waste tyres are classified as “absolute non-hazardous” by the EU.

The spokesperson also pointed to a 2017 European Chemicals Agency evaluation that concluded there is a very low level of concern from exposure to substances found in recycled rubber granules used in sports pitches, and that there is “no reason to advise people against playing sports on synthetic turf containing recycled rubber granules as infill material”.

The spokesperson added: “We are committed to protecting the environment and wildlife including through the regime which regulates chemicals and restricts the use of harmful substances in products.

“The European Chemicals Agency concluded there is a very low level of concern from exposure to substances found in recycled rubber granules used in sports pitches. A further restriction is being considered that would further lower the concentration limits.”

According to an FA spokesperson: “Hygiene guidance is being promoted on social media and shared with the county FAs.”

Tony Gavin, former head of Laurence Jackson School, a specialist sports school in Guisborough, North Yorkshire, said: “There should be an urgent FA review as part of a full government enquiry with legal powers to investigate the whole process, from procurement to construction, including materials used.

“The priority must be the health, safety and wellbeing of young people. Any ingredients which pose a risk must be identified, highlighted, discontinued and removed immediately.”

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