This article was first published yesterday in our bespoke Sports newsletter The Fixture. You can sign up in seconds to receive it straight to your inbox every weekday here.

Anyone who has ever played on a 3G surface will recognise the scenarios: remove your socks and empty your shoes at the end of a game and you can quickly form a couple of rubber ball molehills on the changing room floor beneath you.

Crash head first into the turf after a particularly full-blooded challenge and you can spend the next five minutes spitting the pellets out of your mouth or extracting them from hair, nostrils and, even eyes. If you've got kids who also play sport, you'll know that there is no place that those little blighters can't get into.

It's been a few years now since medical experts and sports people started wondering about the connection between those annoying wee pellets – made from recycled tyre rubber and containing a number of chemicals including mercury, lead, arsenic and benzene –and the link to cancer. Benzene, for example, is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as being in the highest category of human carcinogens.

A few years back, amid rising incidences of the illness in soccer players in the United States, a study was undertaken. When more than 50 players at the University of Washington were diagnosed with conditions such as lymphoma and leukaemia their assistant head coach Amy Griffin decided to investigate. More than 60 per cent of those diagnosed were goalkeepers indicating the increased exposure to the pellets that comes from playing the position. By 2017, the list of those diagnosed had grown to 256, however, despite an investigation by the university's school of public health no conclusive link was established between the pellets and incidences of cancer.

Earlier this week, those fears were given greater credence when the Philadelphia Inquirer published the findings of an investigation looking into the deaths of six former baseball players for the Philadelphia Phillies, who all died of aggressive brain cancer before the age of 60. The Phillies' sold patches of the astroturf used at their Veterans Stadium to fans in 1981. For the story in question, The Inquirer purchased several bags containing segments of the pitch on eBay and carried out a number of tests during which it was discovered that there were dangerous 'forever chemicals' present in the turf, which was produced by Monsanto. The chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer as well as a number of other ailments. Meanwhile, the brain cancer rate among the 532 players who played at Veterans Stadium from 1971 to 2003 is around triple the national average for men.

It is not just in the United States where these links have emerged. In 2019, Nigel Maguire, a former high ranking NHS official whose son, Lewis, a promising goalkeeper at Leeds United, died after a four-year battle against Hodgkin's lymphoma, called for more research into the connections between the turf and cancer.

Maguire said: "I'm not saying for sure he died because of this. At the moment no one knows for sure. There isn't enough evidence out there to say one way or the other. It's like with smoking or thalidomide, no one knows how dangerous they are until years later. I'm asking questions that nobody has the answers to. But the Government are still happy to say they know for sure that it's safe. I can't say for sure it's unsafe. And in the absence of answers, we need to have more research and take precautions."

Notably some countries have already taken action with 3G surfaces banned in Ireland and the Netherlands.


So what, if anything, does it mean for Scottish sport? Well, the Scottish Football Partnership lists on its website 36 3G pitches that have been installed with its help in Scotland since 2012. That's just the pitches installed with SFP funding but there are many other pitches in Scotland which The Fixture also knows to be covered in rubber pellets. The installation of such facilities in areas that are in dire need of them is to be welcomed – and it stands to reason that the delivery of those pitches has been done in the most cost effective way. If they are potentially unsafe, though, something needs to be done about it. How many of those surfaces have pellets containing 'forever chemicals' is a question worth asking, especially if there is any chance of serious risk to our young people's long-term health. Perhaps there is none present but the suspicion from having been exposed to them over many years of playing on 3G surfaces is that the rubber pellets on our Scottish pitches is exactly the same stuff that is now being cited as a cause for cancer with worrying regularity.