Granules and mulches on sports pitches and playgrounds
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.
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
Restricting intentional uses of microplastics
Before the restriction can be adopted, it is scrutinised by the European Parliament and the Council.
Additional study on chemicals in infill
- 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.
Further investigation on PAHs in granules and mulches
The European Commission requested ECHA in January 2023 to assess the risks to children from PAHs in granules and mulches in playgrounds and other domestic applications such as gardening and landscaping. An initial screening assessment of risks was published in June 2023.
- 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.
- Investigation report published for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), 21 June 2023
- ECHA to assess risks to children from PAHs in granules and mulches, 18 Jan 2023
- Study on chemicals in artificial turf infill, 12 May 2021
- ECHA’s scientific committees support restricting PAHs in granules and mulches, 18 Sept 2019
- Lower concentration limit proposed for PAHs found in granules and mulches, 16 Aug 2018
- Restriction proposal
- Recycled rubber infill causes a very low level of concern, 28 Feb 2017
- Call for evidence on the use of recycled rubber granules used as infill material in synthetic turf [PDF]
- ECHA evaluating whether recycled rubber filling on artificial sports grounds poses a health risk, 8 June 2016
- REACH committee votes to restrict intentional microplastics, 27 April 2023
- Commission Regulation on limiting PAHs
- Member States vote in favour of the PAHs restriction in REACH Committee, 21 Dec 2021
- European Commission’s request for ECHA to assess health risks of recycled rubber granules [PDF], 1 June 2016
- News on RIVM's website, 16 Aug 2018
- Environmental impact study on rubber granulate 2018, 20 July 2018 - in Dutch
- Evaluation of health risks of playing sports on synthetic turf pitches with rubber granulate: Science background document, 23 March 2017