EPA Study OKs Recycled Rubber Surfaces

It’s been a long wait for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to weigh in on the safety of recreational products made from recycled tires. Finally, it released the results of a limited field monitoring study of artificial turf playing fields and playgrounds using recycled tire material or tire crumb. EPA plans to use the study information to help determine the next step to address questions regarding the safety of tire crumb infill in recreational fields.

In short, the EPA study found that using the material does not point to a concern for the agency at this time. This is another positive reinforcement for this sector of the recycling industry, which already knew from numerous laboratory analyses, state studies and independent field studies that the material posed little or no environmental danger or health risks.

Liberty Tire Recycling, the country’s largest recycler of scrap tires processes 110 to 120 million tires per year. Company president Don Rea commented on the EPA study, “There has been somewhere between 50 to 100 studies on crumb rubber. There has been so much study done that it doesn’t seem possible that someone is going to come up with another conclusion. It would have been nice if the EPA had just said this stuff is fine, forget it. If EPA was the least bit suspicious they would not have said what they said.”

Over the years, shredded and crumb rubber processed from recycled tires has found its way into many useful recreational and architectural applications. These include rubberized ground covers under playground equipment, running track material, soil additives for playing fields and sports flooring. Crumb rubber is also used in artificial turf fields between turf fibers to provide stability and resiliency.

According to the Synthetic Turf Council artificial turf has been installed in approximately 4,500 American fields, tracks and playgrounds. Synthetic turf was originally used in stadiums and on athletic fields for college and professional sports teams, but now is also used in municipal parks, golf courses, playgrounds, on cruise ships, in airports and residences for lawns. In addition, recycled tires are being processed into colorized mulches for residential and commercial applications, a growing market that exposes more people each year to the material.

This rubberization of surfaces offers many benefits to help prevent injuries and reduce stress on leg muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints, and accounts for its widespread and increased use. This ability to absorb shock has taken rubberized surfacing into homes, workplaces, tennis courts, weight rooms, gyms, fitness centers and even to the equine and bovine worlds. And because it’s easier to clean and cleans more thoroughly, it’s more hygienic than other flooring materials such as wood or concrete.

Cow mats made from recycled tires are increasingly being used in dairy barns all over North America. Just like preventing injuries for humans in recreation and sport, cow mats prevent calves from getting hurt when they fall on concrete barn floors. The insulating properties also reduce cold and humidity on concrete floors to help protect cows against rheumatism and fatigue. Some diaries even attribute increased milk production to rubber flooring.

Abacus Sports Installations, Ltd., for instance, markets a wide variety of rubberized sports flooring made from recycled tires. Their seamless, textured equine flooring for stables is very popular because it’s easier to clean and minimizes bacteria. It’s even installed on stable walls and columns for added protection.

Spencer Proud, owner of Abacus said that his customers have never voiced any concern about the safety of his company’s products. “We’ve never had any complaints or issues in over 20-years of contracting. From an architectural standpoint many of our customers are interested in earning LEED credits (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System) It’s recycled material, very durable, very sustainable. School boards and everyone else these days wants everything to be green for very good reasons. Having this recycled content brings serious contributing points.”

Nevertheless, over the past several years, a number of concerns have been raised over the use of tire crumb materials in turf fields and playgrounds.

Parents in Colorado were concerned about children carrying home small particles of tire crumbs on their clothing. High levels of lead were detected on some artificial turf fields in New Jersey. To address various public concerns, a number of cities and states engaged in sampling, testing and evaluation of products containing recycled tire rubber.

In 2007, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment issued a report, Evaluation of Health Effects of Recycled Waste Tires in Playground and Track Products. It concluded that there appeared to be little long-term risk to human health.

In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a low-level public health advisory, due to some negative publicity surrounding artificial turf.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission investigated reports of lead contamination from artificial turf and, in July 2008, concluded that “young children are not at risk from exposure to lead in these fields.”

A July 2009 California EPA study found no significant health risk to people who breathe the air above synthetic turf that contains crumb rubber. The study looked at the chemicals found in the air above the turf and the chemicals found in the air upwind from the fields analyzed. The conclusion: chemicals were found in similar concentrations in both samples.

A May 2009 study by the New York departments of Environmental Conservation and Health found that crumb rubber used in synthetic turf fields poses no significant environmental threat or health concerns.

Finally, in December, the national response came with the release of the results of EPA’s limited “scoping study” of tire crumb. The study consisted of collecting air and wipe samples at locations near EPA laboratories in Raleigh, North Carolina, Athens, Georgia, and Cincinnati, Ohio. Sampling was also was done in Washington, D.C.

Conducted from August to October 2008, the study found that the concentrations of materials that made up tire crumb were below levels considered harmful. “The limited data EPA collected during this study, which do not point to a concern, represents an important addition to the information gathered by various government agencies,” said Peter Grevatt, director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection “The study will help set the stage for a meeting this spring, where EPA will bring together officials from states and federal agencies to evaluate the existing body of science on this topic and determine what additional steps should be taken to ensure the safety of kids who play on these surfaces,” he added.

As usual, EPA qualified the findings of its study: “Given the limited nature of the study (limited number of constituents monitored, sample sites, and samples taken at each site) and the wide diversity of tire crumb material, it is not possible, without additional data, to extend the results beyond the four study sites to reach more comprehensive conclusions.”

However, the EPA study did confirm, most importantly, that most of the methods tested were accurate, reproducible and appropriate for measuring concentrations of tire crumb constituents and can be used in future studies.

EPA is aware that studies by other agencies were undertaken or completed while its survey was being conducted. EPA is planning a 2010 meeting with federal and state agencies to review all new study data and determine next steps.

The next steps will likely involve more government spending for more studies to arrive at essentially the same conclusions. Meanwhile, more products made from recycled tires will keep more old tires out of landfills and continue to find new and useful applications.

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