Irish Football's synthetic grass cancer scare

Seaview uses a synthetic pitch
Seaview uses a synthetic pitch

Sports chiefs have moved to quell fears over a cancer link to synthetic football pitches.

Concerns have been raised following reports from the US linking an unusually high number of sportsmen and women contracting blood cancer to the use of 3G and 4G pitches.

Irish League clubs Crusaders and Cliftonville have won league titles playing on synthetic pitches in recent years and they are in widespread use in many sports and for all ages of participants.

The Northern Ireland international squad has trained on Bangor’s synthetic pitch and they are a regular sight at leisure facilities across Northern Ireland.

However, American media giants NBC broadcast an interview which has raised alarm about a possible link between the black rubber ‘crumbs’ used on the pitches and blood cancers.

Football coach Amy Griffin was alerted to the possibility while she was visiting a young goalkeeper receiving chemotherapy in a Seattle hospital.

It was 2009 and experienced coach Griffin was spending time visiting sportspeople suffering from the disease in an effort to offer support.

An attending nurse saw the two young goalkeepers Griffin was visiting and remarked: “Don’t tell me you guys are goalkeepers. You’re the fourth goalkeeper I’ve hooked up this week.”

One of the young females receiving treatment said she had a feeling “it has something to do with those black dots”, referring to the rubber ‘crumbs’, usually balls or shavings. This prompted a debate that has raged in sporting circles for over a year now in the United States, though it must be stated that no concrete link has yet been proven between synthetic pitches and cancer.

Griffin, associate head coach for the University of Washington’s women’s soccer team and with almost 30 years of coaching under her belt, found plenty of anecdotal evidence to make her push for more research to be carried out.

She compiled a list of 38 American soccer players who had been diagnosed with cancer, and found 34 of them were goalkeepers.

The suspicion was that players – and particularly goalkeepers – could ingest these black rubber crumbs orally or through cuts and grazes.

The black rubber crumbs are made from old tyres and sceptics have questioned the safety of some of the chemicals, like mercury, lead, benzene and arsenic, used in the crumbs.

NBC did a follow-up report last week requesting more research after the head of the American Environmental Protection Agency stalled when asked if synthetic pitches were safe.

“I have nothing to say about that right now,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was quoted as saying, though industry chiefs insist there is no health risk and no link between the pitches and illness. DCAL and SportNI have together funded the installation of scores of synthetic pitches around  Northern Ireland and were unaware of the concerns in America.

However, after taking soundings the department told the Sunday World it was content with the safety of artificial pitches.

“Neither DCAL nor Sport NI are aware of any research that makes a plausible link between over-exposure to 3rd Generation playing surfaces and cancer.


“The ‘sports turf laboratories’ in the UK or Ireland have not made this correlation, nor have they raised this issue with the industry.


“3rd Generation surfaces are making a positive impact on sports facility provision within the north of Ireland, both in terms of increasing the stock of sports facilities and by providing pitches suitable for the training and competition needs of the associated sports.”

Nevertheless, the NBC investigation reviewed many studies and found that several stated there was no risk but added the caveat that more research was required, in particular into the risks to young children.

No study in the United States has looked into the possible risks to children of using synthetic pitches over an extended period of time.

Meanwhile, Griffin has discovered that the number of goalkeepers suffering from cancer has risen from 34 to 63, and has called for more help from the US government.

“I’m an assistant soccer coach. I do think it’s weird that people are calling me instead of the government.”