Image: Mike Derer

Image: Mike Derer

Thomas Frank, USA Today, March 15, 2015


Lead is a well-known children's hazard that over time can cause lost intelligence, developmental delays, and damage to organs and the nervous system.

The Environmental Protection Agency has promoted the use of rubber crumbs in athletic fields and on playground surfaces since 1995 to help create markets for recycled car and truck tires. But the EPA didn't investigate the potential toxicity until 2008 and now says in a statement that "more testing needs to be done" to determine the materials' safety.

The health threat is substantial enough that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists artificial turf as one of seven sources of children's lead exposure along with well-known items such as paint, water and toys.

But some communities have refused to test their fields, fearing that a high lead level would generate lawsuits or force them to replace and remove a field, which costs about $1 million, according to a 2011 New Jersey state report.

At least 10 studies since 2007 — including those by the safety commission and the EPA — have found potentially harmful lead levels in turf fibers and in rubber crumbs, USA TODAY found.

Researchers flagged fibers and crumbs that exceeded the federal hazard level of 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead in soil where children play. The limit aims to protect children if they ingest lead-contaminated soil — either by swallowing soil directly or by putting dirty hands and toys in their mouths.

But some scientists say that the limit, established in 2000, is too high and ignores recent research showing, as the CDC now says, that "no safe blood lead level in children has been identified."