It seemed like such a good idea. Old tires could be recycled into crumb rubber and used in playgrounds and on sports fields, replacing grass, sand or gravel. It would require much less maintenance and could keep tires out of landfills. The rubber would also be softer than sand or gravel, reducing the chance of injuries.
Unfortunately, there are serious concerns about how safe crumb rubber from recycled tires may be for our children. Recycled tires can contain a number of toxic chemicals, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and toluene, along with heavy metals like lead and manganese.
At certain levels of exposure, those substances are associated with cancer and other serious illnesses. Any level of exposure is concerning, especially when it involves children.
And children could all-too-easily be exposed. Crumb rubber breaks apart, according to the Guardian, and spreads into the air. Kids may also swallow toxins when they put their hands, or the rubber, into their mouths.
“The main concern is that there was a lack of safety testing prior to the introduction of the material in playing surfaces,” said a scientist with the Institute for Exposomic Research at Mount Sinai in New York. “As scientists we normally apply the precautionary principle – when we know that there’s concern about a substance or chemical, we normally try to avoid it.”
Studies are underway to determine the safety of crumb rubber
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, an industry group representing crumb rubber suppliers, told the Guardian that over 100 technical reports and studies have shown no link to human health risks. Yet several federal agencies are still reviewing the material’s safety for playground and athletic field use.
This year, the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to release the first part of a report on a 2016 study on crumb rubber. In addition, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is currently studying the effects of childhood exposure to the substance.
An independent study tested the level of lead in the soil, mulch and rubber in 28 playgrounds. It found that the rubber surfaces sometimes contained two or three times the lead of other surfaces. The rubber also created elevated lead levels in the surrounding soil.
Several states are concerned, and three recently proposed bills to limit use of crumb rubber or to study its effects. Some local communities have even banned its use.
As we await more study, tell your kids to avoid mouth contact with these materials. That includes avoiding eating or drinking while playing on crumb rubber and washing hands and toys after play. Limit or avoid playing on these surfaces on hot days, when the material could be more volatile.