The synthetic pitch industry has hit back against a report calling for a ban on 3G rubber crumb pitches, saying that it “would seriously harm the provision of sports facilities across the country”.  

The report, by Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling, due to be published this week, says  a “tougher precautionary and prevention strategy”  is “essential to protect users of all ages, the public, and workers who make, maintain and dispose of the crumb.” 

Stefan Diderich, Director General/CEO at EMEA Synthetic Turf Council (ESTC), responded to the report  by highlighting that synthetic sports pitches “not only benefit the physical and mental health of thousands of people, but also aid the development of the country's most popular sports." 

He said: “The suggestion that 3G pitches should be banned across Scotland ignores two very important factors.  The first is that a number of independent scientific studies have shown there to be no health risks associated with European sourced rubber infill, with a major pan European study having taken place in the last four years.”

He also pointed out: “The European Commission’s decision to ban the sale of synthetic and recycled infill such as ELT rubber from 2031 is part of a wider environmental strategy to reduce microplastics. The same rules also apply to other product categories such as cosmetics, and detergents, and have nothing to do with any potential health concerns. We fully support the use of sustainable alternatives to granular rubber infill, with a number of natural infills such as cork, processed olive stones and wood chip already available on today’s market.” 

One of these crumb infill studies is a 2020 European-wide piece of research that looked into the concerns that exposure to “end-of-life tyre (ELT)-derived rubber granules" used on sports fields might pose to human health.  It concluded that cancer risks for exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were below one to one million and found “no health concerns for synthetic turfs with ELT-derived infill”.  

However, Professor Watterson described this paper as “dated” and “limited to PAHs”.   “It ignored many of the almost 200 other possible carcinogens that the 2019 study ‘Evaluation of potential carcinogenicity of organic chemicals in synthetic turf crumb rubber’ found in crumb...The problem with crumb also relates to endocrine disruptors and  reproductive hazards.” 

The Herald: Stock photo of a 3G pitch

“There’s no safe level for example for known carcinogens only ‘acceptable’ risk levels. This usually means industry and regulators decide what is OK for those who run the risks of exposure - the public and workers.”  

Prof Watterson also described the European Union decision on microplastics and infill as "clearly due to health and environment concerns". 

The EU regulation, for instance, mentions “concerns about their general impact on the environment and, potentially, on human health”. 

Because of the number of chemicals found in microplastics like crumb rubber, increasingly scientists are advocating for the wider banning of products, rather than individual chemicals within them, since the process of studying them and calculating risk to health is a long and difficult one - and the EU approach represents a way of tackling that challenge.  

The scale of the problem of crumb rubber is  highlighted by the EU regulation, which says, “Infill material for use on synthetic turf sport surfaces is the largest contributor in terms of use of microplastics in products as well as the largest source of environmental emissions of intentionally-present synthetic polymer microparticles at European level.” 

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The EU regulation gives field owners eight years to make the transition away from end-of-life tyre infill. Professor Watterson has urged the Scottish and UK Governments to stop “procrastinating” and deliver their own ban. 

One of his concerns is that if the UK does not mirror the EU’s ban, which is due to come into play in 2031, crumb rubber manufacturers will view the UK as “a dumping ground”. 

He  is also concerned that some Scottish bodies are looking to the ESTC for guidance.  "Reliance on an industry making, selling or installing artificial turf pitches for risk assessments of their products should always be balanced by independent sources.” 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We work closely with sportscotland and the Sports Pitch Construction Association and its code of practice which acknowledges the difficulty in trying to balance the health and wellbeing benefits that come from the use of 3G pitches with environmental sustainability factors. 

“There are currently no widely available alternative infill products with proven durability on the market that are as effective, suitable for all UK weather conditions and deliver the required performance standards. 

“At least 95% of the material in use falls within the limits set in restriction under EU REACH. 

However,  Prof Watterson pointed out that alternative infills are increasingly available and that  95% only covers a limited number of chemicals in the crumb, "not all its hazardous chemicals”. 

“Natural grass,” said Prof Watterson, “already provides an alternative but will not keep crumb rubber manufacturers and 3G pitch installers in business or profit.  In the meantime, the UK synthetic pitch industry looks as if it may be able to continue selling its products in the UK without let or hindrance when a ‘just transition’ policy should be adopted now.”