Granules and mulches on sports pitches and playgrounds

Every day, millions of Europeans play on all-weather sports pitches that use plastic or rubber granules as infill material. The soft infill makes the pitches more durable, weather-proof and adds shock absorption and traction. Playground surfaces also use loose rubber mulches underneath swings, slides and other playground equipment to cushion the ground when a child falls.

The granules and mulches are often made from end-of-life tyres (ELTs) that are broken up and ground into smaller pieces. Their use as infill in synthetic turf has increased in the last 10-15 years due to because the increase on the number of synthetic turfs and also due to the prohibition on landfilling scrap tyres in the EU.

The granules and mulches may contain potentially harmful chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals and phthalates. They may also release volatile and semi-volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs and SVOCs). The granules also contribute to microplastic pollution as they can be spread to the environment from the pitches, for example, through rainwater or players’ footwear and clothing.

The EU is taking action to improve the environmental footprint of the pitches and to protect its citizens from hazardous chemicals found in the infill material.


Potential risks to human health

Exposure to high levels of harmful chemicals through the soft infill material could pose health risks to people using or working on artificial pitches. In June 2016, the European Commission asked ECHA to assess whether the presence of certain chemicals in the granules could pose a health risk. This request was driven by claims originating in the US where a former professional goalkeeper had been collecting data on cancer cases among her fellow goalkeepers. There were concerns of increased cancer risk to children playing on these pitches. As a result, several studies were kicked off in the EU and US.

ECHA assessed the health risks, looking at exposure through skin contact, ingestion and inhalation. The findings were published in February 2017, with ECHA concluding that there was a very low level of concern from exposure to the granules. The risk of cancer after lifetime exposure to rubber granules was judged to be very low based on the concentrations of PAHs measured at some European sports grounds. These concentrations were well below the legal limits. Also, the presence of heavy metals, phthalates, benzothiazole and methyl isobutyl ketone were below concentrations that would lead to health problems. The findings noted that, where the rubber granules were used indoors, the volatile organic compounds released might lead to skin and eye irritation.

ECHA’s report highlighted some uncertainties that would warrant further investigation. For instance, there was a concern over how representative the studies were for the whole of Europe (given that samples were not taken from all Member States). The Agency, therefore, recommended among other things that people should take basic hygiene measures after playing on artificial turf to counteract these uncertainties.

In addition to ECHA’s findings, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) conducted a study on the health risks of rubber granules used in the Netherlands in early 2017, which confirmed that playing sports on these fields is safe. However, the study gave a recommendation to further reduce the legal concentration limits of cancer-causing PAHs in the infill material. The Dutch authorities took action and submitted a restriction proposal with a specific concentration limit value for PAHs.

Microplastic pollution

The rubber and plastic granules used on sports pitches are considered to be microplastics. Each year around 42 000 tonnes of microplastics end up in the environment when products containing them are used. Granular infill is the largest single source of pollution with estimated releases of up to 16 000 tonnes per year.

These granules can end up in our waters. They can also spread in the environment through snow clearing and other maintenance work. Read more about microplastics on our microplastics hot topics page.


Restricting PAHs in granules and mulches

In July 2018, the Dutch authority RIVM proposed a restriction to limit the concentration of eight PAHs in granules or mulches used as infill material in synthetic turf pitches or in loose form for use in sports applications and on playgrounds. The legal concentration limits in force at the time of the proposal were 100 mg/kg for two of the PAHs (BaP and DBAhA) and 1 000 mg/kg for the other six (BeP, BaA, CHR, BbFA, BjFA, BkFA). These limits were considered by RIVM to be too high to ensure the safety of people, and especially children, playing on sports pitches and playgrounds.

PAHs are known constituents of both extender oils and carbon black used in the manufacture of vehicle tyres. They are known to cause cancer. Animal model studies link the group of chemicals to skin, lung, bladder, liver and stomach cancers. PAHs have also been linked with heart disease and poor foetal development.

The restriction assessed the risks from eight PAHs to professional footballers, children playing on the pitches, and workers involved in installing and maintaining the pitches and playgrounds.

The Dutch authorities recommended to lower the combined concentration limit for the eight PAHs to 17 mg/kg. The aim was to ensure that exposure to the PAHs remains at a low level also in the future and that the use of infill from imported recycled tyres is also regulated.

ECHA’s Committees for Risk Assessment (RAC) and Socio-Economic Analysis (SEAC) started their evaluation of the proposal in September 2018. A consultation on the proposal ran from September 2018 to March 2019. Subsequently, there was a consultation on the SEAC draft final opinion from June to August 2019.

Committee opinions

The consolidated opinion of RAC and SEAC was sent to the European Commission at the end of 2019. RAC evaluated the risks of PAHs to people’s health. SEAC evaluated the benefits of the proposal to people’s health and the associated costs and other socio-economic impacts.

Both committees agreed that – with a few modifications – a restriction proposal would be the most appropriate means to ensure that the cancer risk from PAH exposure remains at a low level for those playing on artificial sports pitches or playgrounds that use rubber infill or mulches. The opinion proposed a concentration limit of the eight PAHs of 20 mg/kg.

Decision by the European Commission and EU Member States

The restriction was supported by EU Member States in December 2020 and adopted by the Commission in July 2021. It prohibits the placing on the market and use of granules and mulches as infill if they contain more than 20 mg/kg of the sum of the eight PAHs. Granules or mulches placed on the market also have to be batch labelled to ensure safe use.

The new rules apply in the EU/EEA from 10 August 2022. It will make playing on artificial sports pitches and playgrounds safer and may help to ease social concerns and worries over playing on artificial sports pitches and playgrounds. The restriction will not affect existing fields immediately but will ensure that any infill material used for refilling the fields is below the new limit.

Restricting intentional uses of microplastics

In January 2019, ECHA proposed a wide-ranging restriction on microplastics in products placed on the EU/EEA market to avoid or reduce their release to the environment. This restriction proposes two options to address the spreading of infill material from artificial pitches:

  • a ban on placing on the market after a transition period of six years; or
  • mandatory use of risk management measures (such as fences, brushes) to prevent the loss of infill from the pitches after a transition period of three years.

The proposal is now with the European Commission for decision making with the EU Member States. It is not yet known which option the Commission will present to the Member States nor what the final decision on the restriction will be.

Additional study on chemicals in infill

In May 2021, ECHA published a follow-up study on substances (other than PAHs) in plastic and rubber granules and mulches used as infill on artificial pitches. It identified over 300 chemicals that could potentially be found in the infill material and created criteria to prioritise those that potentially pose the greatest concern.

Based on this, ECHA recommended that further assessments should be carried out on certain chemicals that could be harmful to people or the environment. These chemicals are:

  • Cobalt and zinc- with potential risk to people’s health; and
  • Cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead, zinc, 4-tert-octylphenol, 4,4´-isopropylidene diphenol (BPA), bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP), benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP) and benzothiazole-2-thiol – with potential risk to the environment.

The risks of PAHs to the environment also need to be examined in any future assessments.

ECHA suggests that the refinement of risk the conclusions is done within the context of preparing a REACH restriction proposal.
Best practice for playing on artificial turf pitches or at playgrounds

Best practice for playing on artificial turf pitches or at playgrounds

Until a further assessment of the chemicals present in infill is performed, there is no scientific basis to advise people against playing sports on synthetic pitches containing recycled rubber granules.

However, to decrease exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and minimise any possible risk, the Agency recommends basic hygiene measures – to reflect good practice and mitigate scientific uncertainties:

  • Always wash your hands after playing on the field and before eating.
  • Quickly clean any cuts or scrapes.
  • Take off your shoes/cleats, sports equipment and uniforms outside to prevent tracking granules into your house.
  • If you get rubber granules in your mouth, do not swallow them.

Article by the ECHA

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