Some residents are concerned that the material for a new field installation project is potentially hazardous. The product is made from ground-up tires that may contain heavy metals and chemicals.

Share story

April Osborne’s son ends football practice coated in oil and blowing black pellets out of his mouth and nose.

The 12-year-old plays on a type of synthetic field made from recycled tires, or crumb rubber, that’s fueled a turf war between the Edmonds School District and residents like Osborne who are concerned about the product’s potential link to health problems.

“I’m sending him out there and saying, ‘Have fun!’ but I’m not 100 percent sure the material he’s playing on is safe,” she said.

As an alternative to grass or more costly forms of synthetic turf infill, crumb rubber is a popular option for playgrounds, soccer fields and other athletic parks. But tires can contain heavy metals and other volatile chemicals, stirring a nationwide debate among health and athletic experts over if or to what extent the artificial fields are hazardous.

“We don’t have proof that they’re unsafe; we don’t have proof that they’re safe,” said Dr. Susan Buchanan, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

There are 21 places with the cushiony infill throughout Seattle’s park system and dozens more statewide, including most metro school districts and universities.

In Edmonds, parents and neighbors have organized protests and rallied at community meetings in an attempt to persuade city and school district leaders to use a different material — like shredded, recycled Nike shoes — for a new field installation project at the former Woodway High School.

They’re arguing until there are more conclusive studies on whether or not the crumb-rubber filling contains harmful substances, like carcinogens, they don’t want children playing on it.

“Kids shouldn’t be the guinea pigs on this,” said Laura Johnson, who is changing her son’s lacrosse team because of the material. “We should know that it’s safe before it’s put down.”

Buchanan, who is also the director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health, said she and her colleagues regularly field calls from parents all over the country with similar concerns.

It’s clear children are having close contact with the ground-up, recycled material when they’re playing, she said, but without definitive research, it’s hard to determine if crumb rubber’s chemical exposures put them at serious risk of health issues. “The piece of the puzzle that’s missing is, are children ingesting or breathing enough to have health effects,” Buchanan said.

Edmonds City Council members are considering signing on to the local project to expand the city’s access to the new fields, but they’re holding off until they can further review residents’ concerns and research.

One document they’re considering is a letter by an environmental and risk sciences consulting firm that states that for eight years, government agencies across the nation have been looking into the artificial-field issue, mostly determining the synthetic material safe.

A public-health risk “appears unlikely” based on available research, according to Washington State’s Department of Health website, and turf users should refrain from swallowing the material and clean up after play.

The Edmonds School District is moving forward with its renovation plans, with or without the city’s partnership, and expects to have the fields completed by September.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that there is no risk, or very little risk, of this product being an issue,” said Stewart Mhyre, the school district’s executive director of business operations.

But Mark Wall, who lives nearby, disagrees.

The volunteer soccer coach said the synthetic material’s petroleumlike smell, and other features of the field project, adversely affect his property and well-being. He filed a lawsuit against the city and school district in May with hopes of stopping the construction.

But in the meantime, as the artificial turf goes in and his frustration grows, Wall said he’s considering picking up and leaving town.

“I don’t want to live next to a tire dump,” he said.

Information in this article, originally published July 27, 2015, was corrected July 28, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Laura Johnson had pulled her son from a lacrosse league. She said she intends to.