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Do the forever chemicals in artificial turf, firefighters’ gear increase risk of cancer?

  • Scott LaMar
Flipped Up Section of Artificial Turf Grass On White Background.

Flipped Up Section of Artificial Turf Grass On White Background.

Aired; March 28th, 2024.


Professional athletes have been playing on artificial turf since the mid-60s. Many college football stadiums were outfitted with plastic grass or Astroturf in the 1970s. More high schools are installing artificial turf today with the thinking that’s it’s easier and cheaper to maintain.

Pro athletes have complained about artificial turf for decades, saying they suffer more injuries than on real grass. But what if artificial turf contributes to more than just knee or ankle injuries? What if the chemicals used in the manufacture of the turf can lead to cancer for those who play on it?

For the past year, The Philadelphia Inquirer has investigated the forever chemicals or PFAs that go into artificial turf.

And it’s not just the turf. Those forever chemicals are used to make the gear that firefighters use.

Joining us on The Spark Thursday were the two journalists who have investigated those forever chemicals, David Gambacorta and Barbara Laker.

Gambacorta explained how the series came about,”We took note, when David West, who had been a, a relief pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies in the early 1990s, died in 2022 from brain cancer. And he became, at that point, the sixth former Phillie to die from glioblastoma. And Barbara and I just sort of got curious as to whether there might be potentially some sort of common link between all these cases. And we noticed that, each of the former players had spent parts of their career at Veterans Stadium, which had been the Phillies’ ballpark from 1971 to 2003. So the stadium was demolished, in 2004. But we were just trying to figure out what more we could find out about the stadium itself. And we were able to find pieces of the Astroturf that had been on the Vet’s field, on eBay. So we bought four samples, and, Barbara had by then connected with, researchers at two different laboratories, who were willing to test the turf for us. We had no preconceived notion of what it might show. But the, the test found that the turf contained, 16 different types of PFAs.”

PFAs have been found to increase the risk of cancer.

Laker said the artificial turf manufacturers wouldn’t talk to them for their stories but she added,”We do know from internal documents, within DuPont that they knew that these chemicals were hazardous and could be harmful, and they knew that for decades. So, like, dating back to the 60s and 70s, there were tests they did on, on animals and, so they knew for a long time. And it just seems like David and I are finding it’s almost every month that experts add another cancer or another health hazard that could be linked to PFAs. And, because the the cancer is, right now it’s kidney and testicular. But some people believe that there could be links to many more cancers. It’s linked to infertility, thyroid problems, asthma, I mean, a whole host of problems that people can have. And I just read this morning, in fact, that the rate of colorectal cancer is going up among young people, like drastically. And experts across the country are trying to figure out why. Some people believe there may be a genetic mutation component or the diet that younger people have eaten for a long time, but some people are are really looking, carefully at environmental hazards.”

The turnout gear worn by firefighters has also been found to contain PFAs. Gambacorta talked about how it’s raised concerns,”What we found last year, as we went deeper into our reporting on this project, was that the firefighting industry is now deeply concerned about PFAs as a potential driver of cancer cases. The International Association of Firefighters, the union that represents firefighters in America and in Canada, had told us that they, I think it was in 2022 added 261 names to a memorial that they have for fallen firefighters, and two thirds of them had died of cancer. And what they were really upset about was that their uniforms, the turnout gear that they wear, when they respond to blazes, contain PFAs that are often used as a water repellent. So it sort of makes sense that a firefighter’s gear might have that. But studies have shown PFAs, not just on the outside of the firefighters gear, but on a middle layer, a middle barrier, and on the inside part of the uniform. That would be sort of up against their bodies. And so the the International Association of Firefighters is now involved in litigation over this issue. And there’s a pretty significant effort, even in federal government now to research and develop firefighting gear that doesn’t contain PFAs.”

Congress is considering legislation that would provide $100 million to research and develop firefighting equipment that doesn’t contain PFAs.

Gambacorta and Laker also reported that artificial turf is difficult to recycle and can’t be disposed of in landfills. Rolls of the used turf are being stored on farms in Pennsylvania.


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