One of the most visible and vexing byproducts of our love affair with the car—besides climate change—is the used tire. Taking a cue from the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” cities including San Francisco are repurposing the leftover tires to pave sports fields and playgrounds. However, growing concerns about the health risks posed by toxins present in tires have the Sierra Club and many other environmental and consumer safety groups calling for their removal. San Francisco has in place a Precautionary Principle that should preclude the use of materials that could pose a risk to the health and safety of its citizens and the environment. So why is the city continuing with plans to install this potentially hazardous material at the Beach Chalet soccer fields?
In part, the city’s installation of tire-crumb—or styrene butadiene rubber — turf sports fields is a part of a nationwide undertaking, once encouraged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By 2003, Americans were generating about 290 million used tires annually. To keep waste tires out of landfills and from polluting the countryside, the EPA began to encourage their reuse. Several states, including California, followed suit and created grant programs that local governments could tap into to repurpose used tires.
Encouraged by such incentives, tire-crumb playgrounds and sports fields have begun to proliferate in San Francisco parks in recent years. In November, following the failure of a ballot measure that would have prevented the project, the city’s Recreation and Parks Department commenced construction on its largest-yet tire-crumb facility: the Beach Chalet soccer complex, located at the western end of Golden Gate Park. This project involves demolishing seven acres of natural grass fields and covering those seven acres with an estimated 3.5 million pounds of ground-up tires covered with plastic grass.
Because of projects like the Beach Chalet fields, there may be fewer heaps of used tires throughout the nation, but growing concerns about the safety of tire-crumb turf have raised questions about the wisdom of this tradeoff.
For several years, the Sierra Club has been litigating the Beach Chalet soccer fields project based on inadequacies in the project Environment Impact Report (EIR), including these safety concerns. For one thing, the EIR acknowledges that ingested toxins in the tire crumb exceed hazard levels for children by 220 percent, based on a report by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (you can find the full report at http://tinyurl.com/oehhastudy). What are those substances that exceed the trigger levels? Among others, they are arsenic, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, molybdenum, nickel, and zinc. Physiological impacts of overexposure to these toxins range from irritated eyes, rashes, and joint pain to developmental delays, cardiomyopathy, and cancer.
Other government agencies have likewise acknowledged safety issues with tire crumb. In 2013, in response to advocacy by the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the EPA retracted a 2009 statement that read, “The limited study, conducted in August through October 2008, found that the concentrations of materials that made up tire crumb were below levels considered harmful.” The EPA now admits that the information from its 2008 study is outdated.
In 2014, NBC News reporters aired a series of stories on the potential link between tire-crumb turf and cancer in soccer players, mostly goalies, a number of whom have developed lymphoma and leukemia, among other cancers. Soccer goalies spend a lot of time on the ground, diving into the crumb rubber. The NBC stories revealed that the EPA now admits that more studies need to be done before tire-crumb turf can be declared safe.
Additionally, in December 2014, State Senator Jerry Hill, representing Peninsula district 13 and Chair of the Standing Committee on Environmental Quality, introduced legislation calling for a temporary moratorium on the installation of tire-crumb soccer fields pending the results of a state study on their safety. Senate Bill 47, The Children’s Safe Playground and Turf Field Act of 2015, would require the study to be completed by July 2017. Unfortunately, because the moratorium would not apply to any projects already underway before July 2016, the legislation would not stop installation of the Beach Chalet fields or remove the many acres of tire crumb-filled artificial turf already in use throughout San Francisco.
At a Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee meeting on January 6 of this year, Dawn Kamalanathan, the SFRPD director of Planning and Capital Management, said that as part of the department’s capital plans for 2015-16 and 2016-17 it is considering a proposal to replace tire-crumb turf fields at the Franklin, Youngblood Coleman, Garfield, and Silver Terrace playfields with “natural infill material.” Despite this positive development, Kamalanathan said that the department still plans to install tire crumb turf at the Beach Chalet fields.
San Francisco’s Precautionary Principle, adopted in 2003, requires policymakers to thoroughly vet projects and choose the option least harmful to human health and the city’s natural systems. Given all that we know—and still don’t know—about the toxins present in tire crumb, the Precautionary Principle would seem to preclude the Beach Chalet project right from the get go.
The Sierra Club’s fight to appeal the Beach Chalet project EIR is ongoing, with a ruling expected in early 2015. If the Club wins its appeal, the city will be forced to redo the project’s Environmental Impact Report. At that point, environmentalists and those concerned about the health of soccer players will have an opportunity to lobby for safer turf for the city’s children.
Read more about the environmental and health impacts of the Beach Chalet soccer fields project in the Yodeler online in “November election pits grassroots initiative to protect Golden Gate Park against Park Department power play” and “Sierra Club appeals Beach Chalet court decision that ignores critical safety hazards“.
— Sue Vaughan, chair of the San Francisco Group Executive Committee, and Kathleen McCowin, an attorney, geneticist, and soccer mom.