The parents of boys at the Ajax academy De Toekomst in Amsterdam received letters last week to reassure them that from now on, not only would their children not be playing on any of the club’s 3G pitches with rubber crumb infill, but those pitches were being removed.
It was a swift response to the findings of a documentary on the Dutch public broadcaster NPO which revealed serious shortcomings in the government-sponsored research in 2006 that had declared the rubber crumb to be safe, thus beginning a 3G boom.
From 300 3G pitches in Holland 10 years ago there are now more than 2,000 of them, in a country where artificial turf and the 120 metric tonnes of rubber crumb used on each one – equating to 20,000 shredded tyres – is big business.
So much so that six Eredivisie teams – Heracles, Sparta Rotterdam, Excelsior, Roda JC, Zwolle and ADO Den Haag – have 3G pitches at their home stadiums. Now, for the first time in Holland, there are major doubts on health grounds.
What is the strongest allegation against rubber crumb, those little black pellets you find in boots, socks and on skin after a game on 3G? It is that carcinogens in the rubber could be responsible for cancer – with children the most vulnerable of all.
The issue was first raised in the United States and was picked up by Nigel Maguire, 52, a former NHS trust chief executive, whose son Lewis, 18, had the white blood cell cancer Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is in remission for the second time after a relapse.
Lewis was a goalkeeper, who played on 3G at the academies at Darlington and Leeds United. Nigel describes the boom in 3G rubber crumb pitches as an “industrial scale experiment on the health of our children”.
After the findings of the Zembla programme, a weekly news investigation on Dutch television, Holland is now adopting the “precautionary principle” Nigel has long advocated.
What of England? At the end of this month, Martin Glenn, the Football Association chief executive, and Tracy Crouch, the minister for sport, will open in Sheffield the first of the much heralded “hubs” of 3G pitches that will be built in around 30 towns and cities. The initiative was launched by former FA chairman Greg Dyke to increase grassroots participation – but how safe are those grass roots?
The question relates to the kind of tyres or rubber products being recycled and the FA is unequivocal that its rubber crumb meets the European Union standards previously ignored in Holland. The Zembla investigation discovered that some of the rubber crumb used in pitches in Holland had come from rubber pipes used in the petrochemical industry. The question remains: how does anyone track the specific history of a mass recycled waste product?
In June, the English FA referred laboratory study results that it had commissioned into the specific rubber crumb to be used on the pitches built under the new hubs programme to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The FA is satisfied that its rubber crumb passes all safety requirements, the regulation of which is the responsibility of Defra and the HSE.
“The recycled rubber being used comes from the petrochemical industry and could cause cancer”
In a statement to The Sunday Telegraph, Sport England said that “numerous scientific studies” had passed rubber crumb as safe. “We will continue to work with [Defra] to remain at the forefront of research and therefore ensure the safety and well-being of people who use 3G pitches.”
In Holland, the minister for health, Edith Schippers, has ordered a new study of rubber crumb, and its potential threat, after the Zembla documentary discovered that the 2006 study by the Dutch public health institute RIVM was grossly inadequate. The toxicologist in question used a sample of just seven adult footballers at his local club, in a 2½-day study that paved the way for that huge growth in 3G rubber crumb pitches all over Holland.
The attitudes uncovered in Holland by Zembla have been shocking, to say the least. Last year the Dutch government was lobbied successfully by the artificial pitch and tyre industries not to apply new EU standards for toy safety to rubber crumb. The fear in Holland is that the legacy of rubber crumb 3G pitches will only be known years from now.
On Friday, the Fifa president Gianni Infantino urged an investigation into the carcinogenic properties of rubber crumb and said that, on balance, he would rather Fifa invested the $4 billion set aside for football development over the next 10 years on natural surfaces.
Many clubs across Holland are now faced with the difficult decision of closing 3G rubber crumb pitches to children, especially with parents worried by the evidence against the 2006 report. The same question will be asked of the Cruyff Foundation, launched by the late, great Johan, which funds “Cruyff Courts” in neighbourhoods all over Holland – 3G pitches, with the laudable aim of giving children a place to play.
One Dutch contractor, whose company lays 3G pitches, told Zembla journalists that there was a safer compound that could be used in place of the rubber crumb, an infill made from cork and the fibre of coconut shells. The problem was that it cost €15,000 more per pitch, which made it unpopular.
It also does not have the backing of the tyre and rubber lobby, under pressure to recycle millions of old tyres every year.
The Zembla investigators took their findings to the Dutch FA, the KNVB, who have accepted the 2006 study was as good as useless as a scientific document. At the KNVB’s headquarters in Zeist near Utrecht, a St George’s Park equivalent, they also have a 3G pitch. Out of interest, the Zembla journalist Roelof Bosma asked, what kind of infill did they use on it? The man from the KNVB took a moment and replied that they preferred the cork infill to rubber crumb.
English league season is like an Ironman event
Continuing a tradition for overseas managers, it is Jürgen Klopp’s turn to argue now that the punishing Christmas schedule is what undermines English clubs in Europe as well as the England team at summer tournaments.
His Liverpool team play Manchester City and Sunderland within 48 hours on New Year’s Eve and Jan 2. He is right, of course, it is ludicrous. But that is how English football likes its league season, a championship with an ultimate endurance event flavour – an Ironman for footballers.
Come 2030 there is a chance that England might be the host of a mammoth 48-team World Cup finals that could potentially mean an eight-game run for the two teams who make the semi-finals. Long odds on whether England could actually make the final but I wonder what chance we will still be debating a winter break even then.
First published on www.telegraph.co.uk/football 15 October, written by Sam Wallace