A ball lies on the artificial 3g pitch (file pic). Alamy Stock Photo

Cancer links, environmental concerns and the years-long argument over banning artificial pitches

The use of rubber crumb has caused concern for both health and environmental reasons.

IN 2016, every parent of a boy at Ajax’s De Toekomst Academy in Amsterdam received a letter from the club.

The message was simple: they no longer needed to worry about their children playing on the club’s 3G pitches with rubber crumb infill. The club had agreed to remove the pitches.

It was a remarkable decision following a decade in which the number of 3G pitches in Holland had increased from around 300 to over 2,000.

Government-sponsored research in 2006 was the catalyst for the 3G revolution after the initial findings concluded the rubber crumb to be safe.

However, Dutch public broadcaster NPO’s 2016 documentary uncovered serious flaws in the original research.

The study by the Dutch public health institute RIVM in 2006 was conducted over two and a half days and contained a sample of just seven adult footballers.

The subsequent investigation by the Zembla programme — the Dutch equivalent of RTÉ Prime Time Investigates or BBC Panorama — caused shockwaves across Holland.

There were four separate parts to the investigation — one about the environmental issues, one about the lack of recycling of the fields and two about the health factors, with the latter garnering the most attention.

One of the especially concerning allegations surrounding rubber crumb, defined as being “derived from end-of-life tyres and is the smallest and highest end use of recycled rubber,” is that carcinogens in the rubber can cause cancer

In the Netherlands, in particular, it was a worrying development.

Nikolaj Magne Larsen, the CEO of Re-Match Netherlands, a turf recycling company, has noted how the country has “the highest square meters of artificial turf per inhabitant in the world.”

Moreover, at the time, six Eredivisie teams, Heracles, Sparta Rotterdam, Excelsior, Roda JC, Zwolle and ADO Den Haag, used 3G pitches at their respective home grounds — although other clubs subsequently followed Ajax’s lead.

RIVM had found “no indications of a relationship” between the crumb and leukaemia or lymph node cancer, but after the documentary aired both the Dutch minister for health, Edith Schippers, and Fifa President Gianni Infantino backed calls for a more thorough investigation into the potentially harmful effects of rubber crumb.

“The first month after our first show, [the reaction] was huge,” Dutch investigative journalist Roelof Bosma tells The42. “And to be honest, it surprised me as well.”


Bosma and his colleagues changed the conversation around 3G pitches in Holland, but they were not the first people to suggest possible links with cancer.

Months before the Zembla documentary, findings recorded in the US by the University of Washington also suggested a possible connection between the use of artificial pitches and cancer.

washington-huskies-associate-head-coach-amy-griffin-watches-her-team-warm-up-before-the-first-round-match-against-the-seattle-u-redhawks-during-the-ncaa-womens-division-1-soccer-tournament-on-novembe Former USA international Amy Griffin. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

One of the authors was Amy Griffin, a former USA international, who found that 200 athletes who used artificial surfaces regularly had developed forms of cancer.

Of the 200 in question, 158 were footballers and 95 were goalkeepers. The logic is that ‘keepers tend to be more exposed to the chemicals because they are frequently required to dive on these surfaces to save shots.

The list is continually updated and as of May 2020, had examined 268 athletes with cancer.

There is still no conclusive evidence but the theory is that toxic chemicals from recycled tyres can leave people at risk of cancer if ingested over a substantial period.

Yet football’s hierarchy has regularly played down health concerns.

In 2016, Fifa told Sky Sports News that their “Medical Assessment and Research Centre (F-MARC) in cooperation with Uefa conducted an analysis of this matter in 2006.

“At that time, the conclusion was clear: the available body of scientific research on this issue did not substantiate the assumption that cancer resulting from exposure to SBR granulate infills in artificial turf could potentially occur.

“Since then, several independent research have been conducted — the latest being from 2015 — reaching similar conclusions. Fifa will continue monitoring and analysing any new evidence produced on this matter.”


While uncertainty remains over the cancer links, some people are unwilling to accept the game’s authorities’ longstanding stance.

Lewis Maguire, a promising young goalkeeper from Darlington who had trials at Leeds United, passed away at the age of 20 from Hodgkin lymphoma.

Following an inquest into his 2018 death, his family renewed calls for a ban on artificial sports pitches.

Lewis’s father Nigel, a former chief executive of NHS Cumbria, believes his son could have contracted the disease from rubber crumb on the artificial grass he had regularly played on before his illness. He has called for a ban on these pitches until it is proven beyond doubt that they are safe.

“I will continue to press for answers, not least because Lewis wanted those answers and I owe it to him to get them,” Nigel said after Newcastle Coroner did not refer to the family’s claims at the inquest


As alarming as the health concerns are, a significant proportion of the research on plastic pitches has focused on environmental issues.

In 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a report by Atlantic Technological University and University College Dublin highlighting how artificial grass, such as those used on football pitches, can contaminate the environment.

Dr Róisín Nash, Senior Lecturer & Researcher at ATU, was one of the report’s authors.

The study outlines how microplastics can escape these pitches and end up directly or via wastewater in local waterways. 

Studies have found that microplastics can harm aquatic life and enter the food chain when ingested.

“If I’m ever giving a talk for people, what resonates with them is that if you’ve got any kids, or you’ve played on pitches yourself, and you come home and you take off your socks, all those little black bits of rubber are essentially microplastics, and they’re [transferring] back into your house and in your washing machine,” Dr Nash tells The 42.

fifa-president-gianni-infantino-delivers-his-speech-at-the-fifa-congress-in-bangkok-thailand-friday-may-17-2024-ap-photosakchai-lalit Fifa President Gianni Infantino is among those who have called for further investigation on artificial pitches. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

There are ways people can limit potential environmental damage by containing the spread of microplastics.

Some of the measures Nash recommends include boot cleaners to wipe down boots before leaving the pitch, in-built socks so the microplastics don’t get caught in the socks anymore, and butt walls, barriers and containment areas that reduce the amount of microplastics escaping from the surrounding area.

Nash understands why there might be pushback against talk of either banning or substantially changing artificial pitches, particularly if “you’re part of a parish and you’ve saved for five or six years” to get them installed.

However, she adds: “I think the majority are unaware that these are intentionally added microplastics they’re playing on. It would never dawn on someone what impact that’s going to have. So I think a lot of it is that they’re unaware of it.

“If people are aware of the damage happening, and there is a retrofit for it, then I think they will be more open to doing it.

“And people do adapt. I mean, the plastic bag levy got people to adapt. I recently bought a washing machine that has a setting for fewer microparticles.”


Seven years ago, Viv Mitchell was enjoying her retirement when she discovered that the local council near her home in the Midlands of England wanted to build a 3G rubber crumb football pitch beside the primary school attended by 630 pupils including her grandchildren.

Previously, she had been alarmed to read about Lewis Maguire’s story and felt compelled to protest this action.

Since then, Mitchell has been tirelessly campaigning against 3G pitches. She says she “couldn’t sleep” the first couple of years after becoming obsessed with this issue and thinking about: “How do I keep children safe?”

Sport England have produced hygiene guidance notices that encourage people “to remove any loose material (e.g. sand, turf, rubber-crumb, clay) from shoes, clothes, and equipment before entering changing rooms and buildings after taking part in physical activity outdoors”.

Mitchell argues that these guidelines “put the onus on the players and parents to keep themselves safe” when it should be sports authorities taking the initiative.


In more recent years, the talk of banning artificial pitches has intensified.

However, environmental rather than health factors have primarily driven the debate.

The European Commission has proposed a ban, which would prevent microplastics from being added to sports fields, cosmetics and cleaning products owing to their negative environmental impact. An initial six-year transition period was set but has since been extended and September 2031 is the current deadline.

The ban would also cover products derived from old tyres such as artificial football pitches and children’s playgrounds.

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) have assessed the health risks, focusing on exposure through skin contact, ingestion and inhalation.

The ECHA concluded that “there was a very low level of concern from exposure to the granules. The risk of cancer after lifetime exposure to rubber granules was judged to be very low based on the concentrations of PAHs measured at some European sports grounds.  These concentrations were well below the legal limits.”

Nevertheless, they recommended that people take “basic hygiene measures after playing on artificial turf” to counteract “some uncertainties that would warrant further investigation”. 

In addition, a 2017 study by RIVM recommended reducing “the legal concentration limits of cancer-causing PAHs in the infill material. The Dutch authorities took action and submitted a restriction proposal with a specific concentration limit value for PAHs.”


sean-kelly Former GAA President Sean Kelly is among those to have expressed concern about the potential banning of artificial pitches. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Former GAA President and MEP for Ireland South, Sean Kelly, is among those to express concern about the upcoming ban

Kelly mentions the potentially “huge costs” for the clubs involved and emphasises the need for a “balanced approach” in tackling this matter.

“If microplastics aren’t good for the environment or human health, it has to be looked at,” he says.

“There is a need for quick and conclusive research into all these aspects.”

Kelly believes the ban should not be enforced in 2031 “if there aren’t clear guidelines, clear alternatives. Because what are you going to do if a club cannot alter it, in the meantime, just stop the functioning of the club? And that is why I think research is so important.

“When it came to it, we were able to discover medicine and injections for Covid in a very short period, which is effective. And I think by bringing the best researchers together, and communicating with the sports bodies, I would hope that the same could apply here.”


Unsurprisingly, efforts to remove or alter plastic pitches have encountered major pushback.

Even Bosma while undertaking the investigation felt somewhat conflicted as his son and friends had been playing on these pitches.

“It was a very big ethical discussion because I wanted my son to play football with his friends and not have to look in a [different] area to find another club that didn’t use those fields. And there were not so many clubs in this area or Holland anymore who won’t play on artificial pitches.

“But I was [adamant] that he wouldn’t play on the rubber crumb.”

There are widespread concerns over how such a ban would impact grassroots football and people from the tyre industry have argued this measure would be disproportionate.

However, last year representatives from EU countries voted to adopt the Commission’s proposal in the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) Committee — the group of national experts that votes on changes to EU chemicals rules.

Yet there is frustration on both sides. In reaction to criticism, the Commission revised its proposal to include a longer transition period for the pitches — extending it from six to eight years.

The Danish Football Association are among those to have expressed scepticism over the ban and are instead promoting “new standards for the artificial turf pitches of the future,” which include fences and drainage systems to limit the release of microplastics.

An infill made from cork and the fibre of coconut shells has been proposed as a safer alternative to rubber crumb.

One of the key moments that sparked Bosma’s investigation was when he discovered that the Dutch FA, the KNVB, were using cork infill rather than rubber crumb.

person-holding-smartphone-with-logo-of-eu-institution-european-chemicals-agency-echa-in-front-of-website-focus-on-phone-display EU institution European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) has warned of the health risks associated with artificial pitches. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The problem is that it is considerably more costly (in the region of €17,000 per pitch) and the cork infill is allegedly unsuitable for cooler climates, with the slippery surfaces in freezing winter temperatures hazardous to players.

There is also disgruntlement about the financial consequences of the Commission’s proposal, which is nearly €50 million, according to the Danish environment ministry

Yet the ECHA has stood firm against this pressure, warning that “exposure to high levels of harmful chemicals through the soft infill material could pose health risks to people using or working on artificial pitches”.

Furthermore, there is concern over what to do with the leftover recycled tyres if the ban is enacted. Nonetheless, the Commission has backed research programmes to support the industry in finding “more sustainable solutions.”


So what about Ireland?

There are up to 2,500 artificial pitches, with GAA, rugby, hockey and soccer among the sports set to be impacted.

According to the Irish Examiner, the country has spent approximately €500 million on plastic pitches that may soon be outlawed.

Several coaches and players in the League of Ireland have complained about artificial pitches in recent years, primarily due to the perceived increased risk of injury and the potential advantages it gives certain teams.

Derry City and Dundalk are among the teams that have used artificial pitches in their home stadiums.

The FAI said last year that they were “closely monitoring the EU regulations about microplastics and any impact caused”.

Of course, none of it is relevant to the country Ireland most regularly imports footballers to, England, because they have not been part of the EU since Brexit.

European authorities’ reservations have seemingly not been shared across the water — in 2021, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced £50 million in funding for 185 new artificial football pitches.

Consequently, Mitchell has grown increasingly exasperated at the British government and sporting authorities’ consistent inaction.

“Our grandchildren, all our following generations, will wonder why we let this happen, why we didn’t do all we could to keep our world safe and viable,” she wrote back in 2020. “This waste contributes to climate change too, so we’ve really messed up their future.

“So, we’re harming health, polluting our environment and poisoning the food chain. We just can’t carry on as usual, we actually need to take urgent steps to rectify this.”

Bosma, meanwhile, is calling for more studies, particularly about the health risks of artificial pitches, as the debate rages on.

“You can only do this well if you do a very good study – [the problem with] these kinds of subjects is that there’s not a big interest in such a study

“Or to do it for years and years, to delay, and that’s what we see all the time — they delay the decisions. They tried to do with our shows as well so they also want to do that with studies about health issues.

“You shouldn’t underestimate the level of the industry. When it’s about environmental issues, I think they cannot do that anymore because there are so many studies. When it’s about health issues I think they still do because I cannot prove it — that’s why it’s not going as fast as the environmental studies.”

The FAI, Sport Ireland and Irish-based companies who install plastic pitches have yet to respond to The 42′s request for comment on this story.

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