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This week, the San Mateo County civil grand jury is recommending that school districts consider the safety of children before installing artificial turf fields that some suggest can cause cancer. Thankfully, the Cabrillo Unified School District is one step ahead of that recommendation, but the suspect “crumb rubber” infill remains on some area sports fields.

What is the problem? Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, put it pretty succinctly a couple years back in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle: “The common sense concern is that this is just chopped up hazardous waste.” He’s referring to bits of recycled vehicle tires that are sprinkled into the field to provide stability and grip for an otherwise slick plastic material. Despite that, for many years, the use of the tire scraps was lauded as a win-win by organizations like the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery. The field fill accounted for almost 5 percent of the recycled tires in the state by 2014. (By the way, did you know that by 2019 there will be 3 billion tires headed to the scrap heap each and every year?)

Some say the use of the material has led to an otherwise unexplained increase in cancer in young athletes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year launched a study into the toxicity of these fields we give our children. That obviously should have come before installation of these fields.

As late as 2015, CUSD officials prevaricated when asked about these concerns. At first they said local fields did not contain the recycled rubber, then they corrected themselves, admitting that the Cunha Intermediate School soccer field and the baseball and football fields at Half Moon Bay High School contained the material. They have since seen the light. The district is currently replacing the football turf and using a natural cork material as infill instead of recycled tires.

The grand jury merely suggests that the county’s 23 school districts consider these safety concerns and formalize the process for choosing turf when it comes to the 192 school athletic fields in San Mateo County. Had they done so before now there likely wouldn’t be 29 local fields sprinkled with this stuff.

That hardly seems too much to ask. Particularly since the grand jury’s study also found that it’s no more expensive, even over the long run, to install natural grass instead of plastic and rubber.

We shouldn’t get carried away. The science isn’t yet in. But there is cause for concern, and prudent administrators will put student safety first, second and third.

— Clay Lambert

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