By Minami Levonowich
Approximately 200 playgrounds in Kansas use shredded rubber from old tires for artificial surfaces. As more facilities switch to recycled tire products, environmental groups and health advocates are concerned with the lack of studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the prolonged health effects of recycled tire scraps.
And Kansas lawmakers are asking questions as well.
“I’m concerned … soccer players and others are clearly developing cancer, and our kids are playing on these (turfs) on the playgrounds,” Rep. Annie Kuether, D-Topeka, said this week.
Kuether asked the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) to provide information on health concerns for recycled rubber products. Gary Mason, deputy secretary for the environment at KDHE, said he doesn’t have sufficient data to answer.
Some of the compounds found in crumb rubber, which can be used in synthetic turf, have been identified as known or suspected carcinogens – substances capable of causing cancer, experts say. These include benzothiazole (the compound significant in medicinal chemistry) and 9-octadecenamide (the substance that has industrial uses, including as a slip agent). Other chemicals and metals, such as lead, create additional health concerns, including severe irritation of the respiratory system and the eyes, skin and mucus membranes, as well as negative effects on the liver and kidneys. In the United States, more than a hundred soccer players have developed cancer after playing on synthetic turf fields, according to news reports. However, despite an ongoing study, not enough research has been conducted to conclusively establish if more people have been affected.
In 2013, the EPA backed off its statement that recycled tire products are safe to use in playgrounds. EPA spokesperson Laura Allen said that the studies were “limited” and that additional testing should be a “state and local decision.”
The use of rubber mulch over alternative products for playgrounds has a benefit in that it helps manage waste tire problem. Rubber mulch is a durable product that provides protection during falls, and it inhibits mold, weed and fungus growth, experts say.
The Bureau of Waste Management (BWM) has awarded more than $2.6 million in waste-tire recycling grants to municipalities and school districts across Kansas to help fund the purchase of waste tire products for playground surfaces, its website says. The purpose of the grant program has been to drive the market for recycled rubber products as an alternative to landfilling.
Ken Powell, public service executive and section chief at the waste reduction and assistance section at BWM, hopes that recycled rubber could be put to more uses.
“Most of our tires, regretfully, go into landfills,” Powell said. “In Kansas you’re looking at about 2.6 million tires generated per year, but most of those go to, what we call, a monofill which is a landfill that only takes tires, or it goes into just a regular municipal solid waste landfill.”
Justin Glasgow, owner of Performance Tire and Wheel in Topeka and board member of the Mid-America Tire Dealers Association (MATDA), told the house Energy and Environment Committee that tire dealers “support any processes that are environmentally and economically sound.” The use of recycled tire products benefits both communities and the tire industry, he said.
“It costs a lot of money to recycle tires. It’s an expensive product, but it lasts forever and it does work,” Glasgow said. “The rubber mulch you see in playgrounds is really thick. You compare that to a wood mulch – wood mulch is going to rot every year. Ours won’t.”
On Monday, legislators discussed the tire tax reduction bill, which would remove the waste tire grants. The grants have helped provide both the private and public sectors with rubber for playground surfaces.
If the bill passes, schools won’t be able to apply for grants anymore. By matching 50 percent of the funds from the state program, communities were able to build playing surfaces that, otherwise, they would not be able to afford.
Kuether was not thrilled with the possibility of removal of the grants. She said it could take away any responsibility from KDHE for liability of the health hazards of rubber mulch.
“I’m sorry that schools won’t be able to apply for grants anymore. Certainly that’s another knock on their budget so that concerns me,” Kuether said.
The need to find a solution to the nation’s increasing stockpile of scrap tires is a growing problem and could mean an increase in illegal tire piles, as well as health and environmental risks, such as mosquito breeding and fires.