Round Two: Does artificial turf come with more than just an injury risk?

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

I hadn’t planned on writing Artificial Turf Part Two this week – until I saw this comment by The Portager reader Matt S.:

“It seems like artificial turf also causes cancer.”

And then this from another reader:

“Thinking about [last week’s Round 2] column on injuries due to artificial turf, why is it that lineman are required to wear knee braces in college, but not in the NFL? Any data that the braces reduce injuries?”

And thus Part Two was born.

So I set about doing my due diligence on these aspects of the dangers of playing on synthetic surfaces. The amount of information available is overwhelming, and much of it depends on who you believe — or want to believe.

But when it comes to a possible link between playing on artificial turf and cancer, one thing is clear: While it is a working hypothesis right now, there is strong scientific evidence to support it — kind of like when smoking cigarettes wasn’t proven to cause cancer, until it was.

Here are some of the more interesting facts I uncovered:

– You know those little rubber pellets you always see getting sprayed around by players’ cleats during games? Well, those rubber crumbs come from recycled tires, and tire rubber contains more than 400 chemicals and compounds — many of them carcinogenic. Carcinogens are substances, organisms or agents capable of causing cancer.

– Among the carcinogens in “crumb rubber” are lead and benzene. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has determined that lead and lead compounds are reasonably anticipated to cause cancer in people, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified lead as a probable human carcinogen. The science is even more direct when it comes to benzene: HHS has determined that benzene causes cancer in humans.

– Another known carcinogen in artificial turf is chrysene, which can increase the risk of a child developing cancer. Other toxins that have been discovered on artificial turf fields include mercury, heavy metals and arsenic.

– Rutgers University conducted an unpublished study of crumb rubber from synthetic fields in New York City, and it found six possibly carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons at levels higher than state regulations. Some PAHs may cause cancer and affect the eyes, kidneys and liver.

– A study by Yale University in 2019 showed that “the crumb rubber infill of artificial turf fields contains or emits chemicals that can affect human physiology.”

– FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, has said that the evidence weighs in favor of artificial turf fields being safe. However, University of Washington women’s soccer associate head coach Amy Griffin conducted a survey in 2014 of American soccer players who had gotten cancer. Of 38 players, a startling 34 were goalkeepers, a position that requires a lot of diving to the ground — thus increasing the chances for accidental ingestion of, or blood contact with, crumb rubber. Lymphoma and leukemia — cancers of the blood — were the predominant forms of cancer in the players surveyed by Griffin.

– Football players end up on the ground just about every play, so their exposure to these toxins is greatly increased. The cuts and scrapes caused by synthetic surfaces allows carcinogens from crumb rubber to enter the bloodstream directly.

– Artificial turf fields get more dangerous the older they get because natural weathering breaks down the structure of the crumb rubber, releasing the toxins within that rubber.

We could go on and on, but you get the point: While a definitive link between exposure to artificial turf and an elevated cancer risk has yet to be established by the scientific community, it seems like more of a case of when, rather than if, that happens.

Right, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds?

Now, about knee braces in college football and the NFL.

Braces aren’t actually required (yet) by the NCAA, although many if not most Division I schools now require linemen to wear them. While braces improve stability for the knee, they are bulky and limit mobility; therefore, most players at the so-called “skill positions” like running back and wide receiver don’t wear them.

Quarterbacks in college and the pros will wear them, particularly if they have suffered a prior knee injury (Tom Brady comes to mind). Some will wear them as a preventative measure against behemoth defensive linemen falling into their legs.

The NFL does not require linemen to wear knee braces, so most of them don’t unless their coach requires them to do so. The thinking among most NFL offensive linemen is that the protection provided by knee braces — such as it is — is not worth the loss of speed, quickness and agility necessary to block NFL defenders. In other words, it’s hard enough to block the Myles Garretts and T.J. Watts of the world at full speed, let alone while wearing the equivalent of cement shoes.

As for the protection provided by knee braces, it depends on what’s meant by “protection.” There’s a full mountain range of information on the topic, with everything from “knees will be ripped to shreds without knee braces” to “they serve no purpose whatsoever and only get in the way.”

Bottom line: There is no definitive evidence that braces decrease knee injuries.


My former boss at the Record-Courier, Keith Waesch, was recently inducted into the Greater Akron Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. The longtime Rootstown High School athletic director has compiled a career record of 175 wins and 85 losses while serving as head baseball coach at Waterloo and Rootstown.

“I never started coaching attempting to earn hall of fame status,” he said. “It’s a nice honor and I’m truly humbled. I never imagined being in the same hall of fame as Andre Thornton, Len Barker, Gene Michael and Thurman Munson.”

Tom Nader has all the accomplishments covered in his story at Portage Sports.

I’m going to focus on Keith as a boss, coworker and friend. And I’ll start by saying this: I’ve never worked with or for anyone with more honesty, integrity and fairness than Keith Waesch. He knows how to handle people, and he has an otherworldly level of patience that I could only dream of reaching.

Keith was sports editor at the Record-Courier from 1997 to 2002 (has it been that long already?), and I enjoyed every bit of it. I never heard him raise his voice, never saw him lose his temper, never saw him get flustered. He treated everyone with dignity, and he understood the concept of “work-life balance” long before it was a thing. And it was clear from the moment he introduced himself to the R-C sports staff that he was a natural leader. The best part: Keith led by example, never putting us in a position he wouldn’t put himself in first. We instantly respected him and knew we were in good hands. I look back on those five years with great fondness.

Keith’s tenure at the R-C was sandwiched between that of two other terrific sports editors and people, Tim Houser and Allen Moff. Those were heady days, and I would have put our sports staff up against that of any newspaper in Ohio.

Congratulations, Keith.

And thank you.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.