The Vulnerability of Believing in an All-Knowing Regulator


A year or two ago (Who can keep track of such things as time?), my daughter played a weekend soccer game on the turf field in East Greenwich, and observing me squatting down to look at the little black granules within the fake grass, one of the other parents noted that they’re little pieces of ground-up tire.  A number of fields have the same sort of material.  At an indoor sports center in Massachusetts called The Dome, a parent looking over the field from a central balcony can watch little black clouds spurt up after a particularly high kick returns to the turf.

When people first encounter such fields, the conversation follows a familiar pattern.  The first reaction is typically that grinding up old used tires to an inhalable, ingestible size for use on children’s playing fields — especially for highly kinetic sports — doesn’t sound like a very good idea.  But then… lawsuit-averse, well-intentioned public officials and business owners wouldn’t spend so much money on a material that is so obviously suspect if all of the obvious concerns hadn’t been addressed, would they?  At this point, maybe somebody within ear shot chimes in that the Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission, or one of those innumerable government agencies has studied the matter and put its seal of approval on the stuff.

Thus do busy people trying to balance due carefulness with actually living their lives make decisions.

Well, there must also be a reason an article by Mike Ozanian in Forbes bears the title, “Government Finally To Look Into Possible Link Between Artificial Turf And Cancer,” no?  Doing my best to assess the history of this issue by reading some articles from the past few years, I’d tentatively conclude that the tire pellets might pose a cancer risk to the most dedicated players, especially those who find themselves most likely to roll around in them regularly — like soccer goalies who play or practice many hours every season for years.  But it isn’t my intention to wade into that question with this short post.

Rather, the broader concern that comes to mind is the effect of having federal agencies that offer proclamations on safety.  We all have our favorite examples, particularly in the area of diet, of agencies’ reversing their advice.  And people generally concede that there’s a role for government in representing the public by keeping an eye on products introduced to the market by people who hope to profit from them.

Still, perhaps we’ve gone too far in allowing distant bureaucracies to do our due diligence for us.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I hesitate to think how much time I spent as a kid playing sports on real “turf” full of “inhalable, ingestible” dirt. Not to mention all of those bugs. Who knows what was actually contained in those grass stains. Oh well, I am just going to make a hot chocolate and color. All I will have to worry about is staying inside the lines.

  • Joe Smith

    The problem of course is competitive free markets require transparency of information to work more efficiently. The NFL became an early adopter of artificial turf and then its next generation composition well ahead of any comprehensive private or public sector studies on the safety.

    You’re right – using material with tens of known toxic materials sounds dangerous; but you have competing interests such as the EPA seeing a market to alleviate the major problem of tire disposal or environmentalists worrying about the use of water and chemicals to maintain natural turf fields. ( clear cutting swaths of mountainsides to put wind turbines in the name of protecting the environment..)

    Add the early adoption makes officials now risk averse about becoming liable and you have the conditions where potentially (correlation doesn’t mean causation) thousands of turf fields are hazardous but inertia (aand in fairness the time involved in a comprehensive study) about investigating the fields.

    But this type of safety information is in the realm of a public good; the information is non-rival and non-excludable and it’s hard to imagine a private sector company spending the time and money to do more than what was done about demonstrating the long-term safety.

    Of course, the nice thing in a free market is problems often incentivize new markets and there are new infill sources like coconut husks that while more expensive, sound more reasonable (and avoid the issue when the turf requires periodic replacement about disposal of the infill).