Soccer legend Amy Griffin became a citizen scientist, but not by choice. A player and coach for over 30 years, she was approached first by two kids who grew up in the same leagues and played on the same fields — and who both had cancer. Soon thereafter, she knew nine players with cancer. That is when she started keeping track. She calls it “connecting the little black dots.”
Those little black dots are the residue of crumb rubber created by recycled tires used in artificial turf fields and playgrounds. When a ball bounces on the field, a spray of black dust arises. Goal keepers, in particular, play low to the ground and ingest a large amount of this residue through breathing, cuts and their eyes. A typical elite goalie explains Griffin is drilled in catching a bouncing ball 100 times per practice. The black dotes become embedded in their skin and clothing. Over a childhood and college career in athletics, that numbers thousands of exposures to a substance known to contain over 100 carcinogens.
“I am just a soccer coach; I am not an armchair epidemiologist,” says Griffin. Yet players and families have continued to reach out to her. “Amy’s list,” as she calls it, now numbers 260 athletes, mostly soccer players. A disproportionate number, 59 percent, are goal keepers (goal keepers only represent 10 percent of the members of a team). Players have developed many types of cancers that are usually geriatric diseases, but most have some form of lymphoma. “I have a face to attach to every number here,” Griffin said as she presented data on the 260 kids on the list.
Griffin has called for research and regulation on turf fields. The fields are not regulated, and they have not been proven to be safe. In fact, the EPA saw crumb rubber as a solution to tire disposal — tires themselves are regulated — and subsidizes communities that install them. It is her hope that the time is right for environmental health science and regulators to take this seriously.
Associate head coach of women’s soccer at the University of Washington, Griffin has also coached U.S. national and Olympic teams. She spoke Wednesday at the Yale School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences seminar. YSPH researchers recently published a study of carcinogenicity of organic chemicals in synthetic turf crumb rubber in the journal, Environmental Research.