Artificial turf pitches under scrutiny
Sport SG, MOE say artificial pitches here safe, after cancer fear emerges in US and Europe
They are little black granules and are all too familiar to anyone who has played football on artificial pitches.
Called crumb rubber, these granules are made from recycled rubber from the likes of used tyres and are the infill for the pitches and they get everywhere - inside shoes, on open wounds, and even in the eyes and mouth of players.
And across the world from the United States to England and Holland, fears have grown that the crumb rubber may be causing cancer, especially in young children.
There are 140 artificial pitches in schools across Singapore, five Sport Singapore (SportSG) facilities, and several more privately run facilities that mostly feature five-a-side and seven-a-side pitches.
Responding to queries from The New Paper, a spokesman from SportSG said: "SportSG has been following the media reports on incidences of health concerns of players on the use of artificial pitches.
"We have studied reports from leading authorities in the US and in Europe, including the CPSC (The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission) and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
"These reports had found the level of VOC (volatile organic compound) toxicity level from the rubber granules of artificial turf to be within permissible standards.
"Our pitches are also sourced from vendors whose product adheres to guidelines set by the Fifa Quality Programme. This is a rigorous test programme that assesses safety, the ball-surface interaction, player-surface interaction and durability of artificial pitches.
"The health and safety of our people who use our pitches are important considerations for SportSG."
One of the first to raise concern was former US international Amy Griffin, whose anecdotal evidence inspired several reports last year, and even saw ESPN produce a documentary, The Turf War.
Griffin, who trained children in the US mostly on turf and tracked incidents from 2009 to 2015, became alarmed when she found that out of 187 who had been stricken by cancer, 150 played football, and out of those 95 were goalkeepers, who are more likely to get these granules in their eyes and mouth.
NBC news reported that two senators, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Bill Nelson of Florida, have sent a letter to the CPSC asking to "devote additional resources to conclusively determine whether these products can be safely played on by young children and people of all ages".
The Mirror reported on Oct 10 that in Holland, 30 clubs have already closed their artificial pitches, while in England, Nigel Maguire, has called for further research, after his son Lewis, a goalkeeper traillist at Leeds United, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma two years ago.
The Synthetic Turf Council (STC) - a non-profit trade association that brings together parties involved in the manufacture, delivery and use of synthetic turf - said in a statement dated Oct 10 that there is no scientific proof linking cancer to crumb rubber.
It read: "Recent news articles coming out of Holland call for a ban on participating in sports on synthetic turf fields. STC respectfully disagrees with this ban.
"The STC is committed to safety and transparency, and welcomes all scientific-based testing of recycled rubber infill. The STC encourages all to examine the significant body of research already in existence, including more than 90 scientific studies clearly showing no linkage between recycled rubber and any human health issues."
Singapore's Ministry of Education (MOE) echoed a similar view.
"MOE is aware of the health concerns, which has been inconclusive at this stage. Nonetheless, MOE will continue to monitor developments and explore alternatives, in consultation with SportSG, and make changes, where appropriate," said an MOE spokesman.
There are alternatives to rubber infill.
The Jalan Besar Stadium hosts many S.League matches each year, as well as a few internationals.
As infill, it now utilises natural recycled materials composed of coconut husk and recycled cork material, which was introduced by the pitch vendor in 2014.
The infill is believed to be environmentally friendly and cooler than rubber, while still retaining support and stability.
"The decision to (use) these new infills was made after careful consideration of its advantages. The replacement process took about three months and was funded through the Fifa Goal Project awarded to the FAS," said an FAS spokesman.
"We have written to Fifa on this matter and we will await its advice on the next course of action. We will continue to consult and work closely with Fifa and all other relevant authorities to maintain the quality of our pitch."
Last Saturday, The Telegraph reported that Fifa president Gianni Infantino had "urged an investigation into the carcinogenic properties of rubber crumb and said that, on balance, he would rather Fifa invested the US$4 billion ($5.6b) set aside for football development over the next 10 years on natural surfaces".
The health and safety of our people who use our pitches are important considerations for SportSG.
— A SportSG spokesman, on the cancer scare caused by crumb rubber