What Parents Need to Know About Crumb Rubber, Synthetic Turf and Field Safety.

As more and more municipalities, schools and clubs are building turf fields, parents, coaches, and Board members must educate themselves about the different types of synthetic and grass playing surfaces.  This interview from the 2017 Soccer Parenting Summit with Anthony DiCicco is a deep dive into the essential and requisite base of understanding that must be garnered by all people concerned with player safety regarding turf fields.

The Soccer Parenting Association will continue to provide more information on this important topic of synthetic turf field safety.  How are fields tested?  How do we know if they are safe? These are all questions we will focus on in the coming months.

For now, enjoy this important interview  with Anthony DiCicco – providing you with the fundamental knowledge you need regarding synthetic playing surfaces.

Transcript:

Skye: 

Hi, and welcome to the Soccer Parenting Summit, and this important conversation with Anthony DiCicco, where we’re discussing synthetic turf fields, crumb rubber, and safety considerations for parents when it comes to the fields on which their children compete.

Anthony spent five years as the Director of Soccer Operations for AstroTurf. Prior to that, he was the CEO of Soccer Plus Camps, founded by his father, Tony DiCicco. Anthony also served as a Club Director, as an Assistant College Coach, and has had many roles and capacities within soccer within the United States.

I’m thrilled to bring this important conversation to you about safety considerations for our children with the Soccer Parenting Summit. Anthony DiCicco.

Thanks so much for joining us here at the Soccer Parenting Summit. I’m really excited to have this conversation with Anthony DiCicco, talking about the fields that our children play on, the future and safety of fields, as well. So thanks so much, Anthony, for joining us.

Anthony DiCicco:  

Thanks, Skye. I appreciate you inviting me to the summit and congratulations on your second year of this incredible format.

Skye:  

Thanks. Thanks, so much. Yeah, it’s exciting. We’re talking about solutions this year. I know that, you know that sort of plays into a little bit when it comes to fields. As we need fields, they’re certainly a solution to the growth of the game.

With that in mind, there’s been some investigative journalism that’s been done in the last few years about fields and their safety. Is this something that we should be concerned about? Because as we say that, we still see municipalities putting in more and more turf fields everywhere.

Anthony DiCicco:

Well, it’s a good question. But to start with, I want to go back to my days as a club director. One of the things that I learned running an EC&L club in a cold weather environment, is that turf fields are a necessary evil. The reality of the development of the game requires that in many places across the country, turf fields are necessary in order to be able to maximize the time you have with your players.

So with that in mind, I was coaching up at the University of Vermont, and in Vermont, we had gone from a grass field that was shared by just men’s and women’s soccer to a multi-purpose synthetic field. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but all of a sudden we had good players who couldn’t connect to pass 10, 12 feet, and it’s an easy pass. It’s things that you know that they’re capable of. After my second season at Vermont, I was headhunted by one of the synthetic turf companies to build out their soccer brand, their soccer line, and work to better understand the soccer market for them.

What I found is that we’re not paying nearly enough attention to fields, and fields are a universal concept. You can’t play games without fields. You can’t have tournaments without fields. You can’t properly identify and evaluate talent on substandard fields. During this past five years that I was in the synthetic turf world, we’ve seen a tectonic shift, a seismic shift, and I’m proud to have been a part of that because the requirements for clubs, and parents, and players, and coaches has to be an expectation of quality surfaces to play on.

Skye:                                         

Are we thinking, when we’re parents, and we’re thinking about our children and the environment they’re playing on, what is it that we need to understand about these fields? Every turf field pretty much looks similar, to me. What is it that defines a field, in terms of different considerations for us?

Anthony DiCicco:   

Well, your point is spot on, which is most people look at fields and they put them into two categories, grass or synthetic. We know from having played and been on so many grass fields over the years, that there is a massive spectrum of quality of grass, right. You go from the park that’s not maintained at all, with bird baths in the goal boxes, to Soccerplex (Maryland), and these pristine facilities and fields that we have across the country. The good news is that on the grass side, there’s a group of people who are working to raise the standards for grass fields.

On the synthetic side, that is a new concept. It’s something that I was instrumental in pioneering and I wasn’t the only one. There was a collaborative group of people who all understand that what you brought up there a minute ago, that all fields, all turf fields aren’t the same, and they’re not just green, and you don’t just roll them out there. That reality has led to the beginning of a lot of important questions being asked about the safety, and performance, and consistency of fields.

Skye:                                         

Let’s focus on safety to start with. From a safety standpoint, obviously, we saw all those documentaries and stuff about the prevalence of cancer, and connecting that to turf fields. What do we need to know about that for our children’s safety?

Anthony DiCicco:           

Yeah, well, I was just with Amy Griffith up in University of Washington for their ID Camp a couple weeks ago, and we had this conversation. The conversation that has been most prevalent in the news is about the infill, the crumb rubber, it’s called SBR rubber, that gets used to fill in the spaces between the blades of synthetic turf.

Skye:   

That’s all the dots that come in the car every time I pick my child up.

Anthony DiCicco: 

It is, yeah. It’s the number one thing that people associate with synthetic turf fields.

Skye:   

Okay.

Anthony DiCicco:      

Is, yeah, it’s everywhere. You find it in your shoes, you find it in ball bags, you find it in the car, at the house, and so it’s also the piece of synthetic turf fields that has become most synonymous with soccer people and soccer players not liking turf, and their distrust of turf, if you will. The questions were not unfounded. The biggest issues that I took during this whole process on the discussions on cancer and the safety of these fields, was the way that Amy was portrayed by people in that process.

Amy (Griffin) was not saying, “We need to close all these turf fields tomorrow, and we got to shut this thing down, and it’s a scheme.” What she was saying is, “There are questions that I need answered about the safety of these fields.” What I said at the time, and what I’ve said consistently since then is, there’s no scientific evidence that dictates a causal relationship between the crumb rubber, the black pellets, and cancer. It doesn’t exist, which is a good thing because the concept of us having 15,000 fields in this country that are unsafe to the children and the adults that play on them, would be a health nightmare. It would be a mass crisis.

That’s not what has been discovered. But in pulling back the curtain, and even before Amy raised questions, these were the same questions I was asking as a new entrant into this industry, coming from a background of soccer is, “Why don’t we like fields? What is it about synthetic turf fields that we don’t like? And, are there issues that need to be addressed?” The first thing that I’ll say and one of the take homes for parents is, the issue with crumb rubber is not about cancer.

The issue with crumb rubber is its effectiveness over time as a shock attenuator, and the role that fields play in concussions, and concussion prevention. The takeaway for me after five years in the industry is, every field, every synthetic field that gets built in this country, should be built over [inaudible 00:08:45]. This is not currently the standard. In some geographies, it is. We’re seeing a greater education.

So for example, your home club, Richmond Strikers, when they did their field replacement. Initially, it didn’t have a shock pad underneath it. When they did their replacement, they put in a Brock Shock Pad that … I’m not sponsored by Brock, or anything like this, but these are guys who, if you’re doing a field project, should absolutely be consulted in every project that’s out there.

Skye: 

So that’s a fair question for parents to say, to ask. Is there a shock pad under this field? If so, do we need to know any more than that, or is that just a fair question to ask?

Anthony DiCicco:              

There’s short-term and long-term implications to what we’re talking about here. Short-term, are you going to tell your kid not to play on a field because it doesn’t have a shock pad underneath it? No, I don’t advocate that. I play on crumb rubber fields, over stone bases, myself. But what it is, is about raising the consciousness and the awareness of our ability to put our children in safe environments. So if a club is replacing a field in 2018, and they have no intention of even considering a shock pad, or looking at a shock pad, then that raises some serious red flags for me. And there are dollars and cents considerations.

So as we talk about crumb rubber and shift to newer, better performing fields, crumb rubber is not the only infill solution. It is a very cheap, and it’s put in with sand, as well, as ballast, so you have about it depends on the system, but three to five pounds of sand and then crumb rubber, on the most prolific systems that are out there.

These systems were designed in 1998, and have not changed dramatically since then, but if you were looking at replacing a field or building a new field, and you’re utilizing old technology and old mindsets, then it does raise some questions for me about the decisions that are coming down from the top of a club, or municipality, or high school.

Skye:

Yeah, I mean just to share. You mentioned the Striker’s field. I remember, because I’m on the Board for the Striker’s, also. And when that discussion came up, just for me to be able to stand up in the Board meeting and say, “Hey, we have some real considerations that we need to think about. Let’s look into this.”

I didn’t really have to say more than that. That just sort of got the conversation going, enlightening the other Board members in the room to the fact that we need to do some due diligence here. This isn’t as simple as just calling the manufacturer that put in the first field and saying, “We’re due to have it updated,” or whatever.

Anthony DiCicco:  

Yeah, the good news is, there are a growing number of municipalities, led by my hometown, the City of Los Angeles, who have been absolutely spot on in their approach to rehabilitating and building new spaces for children to play throughout the city. But there’s a growing list of municipalities, and design architects, and other organizations, who recognize that this is the direction that fields are going.

Skye: 

Yeah.

Anthony DiCicco:  

And if you live in one of those places, that’s great. If you don’t, or if you have a field that you can tell is deteriorating, or coming to the end of life, the reason that this process has grown in the way that it has, has been largely parent-driven. Has been largely community leaders and community outreach to municipalities and to school districts saying, “We need these questions answered before you go forward.” In this period we’re at in 2017, there’s a lot of demands on people to be engaged and to be active. This is one more scenario where that’s true.

And it seems like it shouldn’t matter. It seems like it should be something that just gets done, but that’s just simply not the case. And at the Concussion Legacy Institute out of Boston, who put out a white paper at the end of last year saying, “That one in five concussions are direct or indirect results of head to surface impact.” Then you start to watch games, and it’s not that hard to visualize it or see it, because even if a player goes up and maybe takes an elbow, or gets head-to-head contact, when their body impacts the ground, how their head responds to that impact is very significant.

It’s important to note, we’re not talking about eliminating the risks of soccer. There is an inherent risk in sports and in contact sports that is part of the benefit of sports, but it is about controlling the variables to the best of our ability to protect our players.

Skye: 

What is it that parents need to look at? You said, when fields are getting towards the end of their life expectancy, I assume that there might be an increase in injuries, potentially, if fields go past their life expectancy.

You’ll see that, but there is a visual cue … So fields don’t wear out because of infill. They wear out because the fiber wears out. It’s the same as your carpet in your house.

Skye: 

Okay, okay.

Anthony DiCicco: 

So when you see fibers starting to wear out, or you find out that a field is in year six, seven, or eight, you know it’s time to ask some questions about the decision makers in terms of what their plans are for that process. If money was a factor, I would build another field with crumb rubber, although I haven’t in several years, without making the move all the way to the most progressive systems in order to put a pad in.

That would be my first priority, is get the pad in, because these pads are going to last multiple cycles of turf. So even if you can’t afford the Bentley in year one, upgrade to a point where from there, you can get away from crumb rubber into a more durable, ultimately safer system, in totality.

Skye:  

Okay.

Anthony DiCicco:   

But it’s a process, and it is a complicated, expensive process that does require some awareness and engagement.

Skye: 

And when you’re saying that fibers are wearing out, you’re literally saying, “It just like looks like there are spots on the field that aren’t as full of green, the green, or whatever color the turf is fiber.” Is that-

Anthony DiCicco:

Yeah, you start to see less green. You’re going to see more black if you have crumb rubber on the fields. You’ll start to see some of those fibers coming home, getting kind of static cling to your boots, or your kids’ boots. Those are good indications that a field is coming to the end of its life. The other thing I’ll say, just to all the parents out there, is if they have questions, they can reach out to me, and I’m happy to give them some feedback on the current state of their field, or what their next steps might be, as part of that process.

Skye:   

That’s great. That’s great. Let’s now talk about like future trends in fields. Where are we going with fields? What are some new trends that we’re starting to see in these synthetic fields? And where do you think it will be in the close to near future?

Anthony DiCicco:  

So the first thing that needs to happen is, looking at the variables of a grass field. What are the conditions and qualities of a pristine, natural grass field, and how do we replicate those in synthetic turf? It’s not an easy thing to do. The first thing to understand is that our standards have to be higher than the current standards exist today. I consulted with the players with the U. S. Women’s National team, ahead of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, and we actually had a plan for temporary grass for the venues in Canada.

The women’s issue is very much the issue we’re talking about, which is not understanding that synthetic turf fields vary so significantly. The field that the final was played on in B. C. Place, was a much more suitable field than what some of the other venues were, and this happens in MLS, this happens in the NFL, it happens in high school, and colleges across the country. A large reason why is because soccer has not driven this conversation. Football, American football has driven the field market for the past 20 years, and back further if you look to older style synthetic turf.

The first thing here is, we’re seeing soccer claim a voice. Baseball has done this, as well. And this is a really important step, because this is where parents and coaches become engaged in the process. They’re on the selection panels, and they are sitting in the meetings to understand the differences. The second that’s happening, or needs to happen and has begun to happening, is the shift away from what I described earlier, which is the heavy infill formula that came into popularity in the late-90s.

This is not specifically about concussions. This is also about lower extremity injuries and the value you get from fields. So as I was describing, the grass industry is making their grass fields better, and one of the tag lines they use is, “Grass can take more.” Well, as grass improves, synthetic turf needs to improve, as well.

Otherwise, you’re going to continue to see the trends that we saw from the Baltimore Ravens, and we’ve seen from the University of Mississippi, which is, they’ve gone from synthetic turf fields back to natural grass because the performance of their synthetic turf was no longer significantly better or more cost effective than the performance that could get from grass, and bringing in sod during the course of the season, or when necessary.

Skye: 

But you’re talking about like the field. These are the game fields. This is the probably what we need to say is, needs to be the most consistent, and high-performing field that there is. I mean, surely-

Anthony DiCicco:     

Yeah, we get to a point where we’re not … Where we recognize that we’ve improved synthetic fields to the point where, playing a major league soccer game on it, or having the men’s and women’s national teams play on it, is not a slight. It is just a different system that performs at or above the standard of high-performing natural grass.

Skye:   

And you see that that’s possible?

Anthony DiCicco:   

It’s definitely possible. The first thing that has to happen is the stigma of turf has to be broken. And the only way that’s going to happen is by continuing to push the envelope on those performance metrics, and then if the only criticism the people have of synthetic turf is that it doesn’t look as good as natural grass, because obviously, it is plastic and on television it is going to have a different aesthetic. That’s a good place for us to be. But the performance characteristics, the safety characteristics, and the playability.

Right now, synthetic turf fields affect the way the game is played. That’s been part of this evolution, is to really get into the weeds on why is that the case? What role do the different components of the pad, the actual carpet, the synthetic fibers that we see, the infill ratios, water, and moisture in the system, and the holy grail here, the thing that we have really gotten into tackling over the past year has been the temperature issue. Because there are safety concerns as it relates to temperature on synthetic turf fields, particularly in the summer months.

Skye:  

Yeah.

Anthony DiCicco: 

And to design that is lunacy. I mean, it is an issue that has to be at the forefront of this discussion.

Skye:

And is it at the forefront? Are you optimistic about the future? I mean, what are some things that you see are going to happen? Where are fields going to be, do you think, 15 years from now?

Anthony DiCicco:

The market has to drive it.

Skye:   

Okay.

Anthony DiCicco: 

The reason that the market has existed with these heavy infill systems for as long as they have is because it is a commodity system that gets sold at a premium. So the industry has no fiscal incentive to turn that corner unless the market demands it. Now because these are such big construction projects, and the process by which the selection of systems is complicated in many cases, there are major forces that are working to maintain the status quo.

That has to be contended with, and the way it is, is when parents raise questions, when coaches get involved on the decision making, when clubs make a commitment to maybe spend an extra $100,000 or $150,000, but when you amortize that over a decade, you’re talking about $10,000 a year for safety. That is not insignificant, but it’s not significant when we’re talking about the health of players.

Skye:    

Yeah, what about this new infill that are coming in, like I mean, I’ve heard all these different fills that are like a more natural fill. Do those have an impact? Do you see a lot of advances as far as that’s concerned?

Anthony DiCicco:   

There are … Well, the first thing I’ll say is, that unless I was forced to, I would not put crumb rubber back into a field. Building fields now, there’s no reason. Once you accept the premise that the pad is going to, not only provide shock attenuation, but provide it significantly better than the crumb rubber ever could, then we can get rid of a lot of that crumb rubber.

Skye:   

Okay.

Anthony DiCicco:      

What we can do is, we can restructure systems that allow for us to tackle issues like temperature. And the biggest bonus in the organic and natural realm of infills is, that they when you hold them in your hand, they smell more like soil, they look more like soil, they interact more like soil. So they are less abrasive. They have temperature benefits. They also require more maintenance. And that’s okay.

If we understand these things going in, they certainly provide us the opportunity to build better fields. And I’m a big fan of the organic infills. They do require a little more attention. We have had some issues with them through their development, but I think they are very good, and worthy of a look, in most cases.

Skye:   

So that, you think, is part of the future of fields?

Anthony DiCicco:  

The future of fields is a crumb rubber-free generation.

Skye:  

Okay. All right.

Anthony DiCicco:  

It’s going to take a long time, unless the market really pushes and demands it for that to become true. You cannot expect the synthetic turf industry to just do the right thing and move away from crumb rubber. That’s not going to happen.

But the opportunity exists, and the success of these non-crumb rubber systems, has dramatically accelerated that process.

Skye: 

Good, good. Well, that sounds exciting. Just big picture in terms of the future of fields for our kids. Any other comments that you think are important for parents to get, in terms of fields?

Anthony DiCicco:    

Fields are like kids. Every one is different. Every project requires its own attention and its own … The questions about why are you doing that, and there are people who are doing some really good work in and outside the industry, dedicated towards building safer places to play.

And one that I want to acknowledge in particular is the U. S. Soccer Foundation. I think they have an important role and voice to play in helping to grow this footprint, because fields are universal. Everybody requires fields. Everyone requires safe places to play. And they’re worthy of our attention.

Skye:

Good, excellent. Well, we’ll be sure to include links to all of these things that we’ve mentioned here during this interview on this page for this talk. So thanks so much for your time. We appreciate this, the just sort of snapshot of something that you hear a lot about, but it’s not often that we have a chance to hear from somebody who has been in the industry about what we need to be considering. So thanks so much.

Anthony DiCicco:  

Thanks for having me, Skye.

Source: https://www.soccerparenting.com

 


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