University of Washington School of Public Health

UW SPH News: State DOH, UW Report: No Unusual Cancer Rate among WA Soccer Players

State DOH, UW Report: No Unusual Cancer Rate among WA Soccer Players

01/18/2017
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An investigation into a concern of elevated cancer in Washington State soccer players found less cancers reported than what was expected, given rates of cancer for similar age groups in Washington residents.

The report, by the Washington State Department of Health and the University of Washington School of Public Health, was carried out after Amy Griffin, associate head coach for the UW women’s soccer team, raised concern over what appeared to be an unusually high number of soccer players, especially goalies, with cancer. Questions were raised about whether exposure to chemicals in artificial turf and the crumb rubber infill that these soccer athletes played on could be associated with these cancers.

Griffin compiled a list of 30 soccer players in WA State who had developed a variety of cancer types between the mid-1990s and 2015. By the end of 2015, that list had grown to more than 50 people with cancer, including some who did not play soccer but exercised on fields of artificial turf.

The state and UW project team compared the number of cancers among soccer players on the coach’s list to the number that would be expected if rates of cancer among soccer players were the same as rates among all Washington residents of the same ages (five to 24 years old).

“We found that the number of cancers among all soccer players reported by the coach was less than expected, given rates of cancer in Washington residents of similar ages,” said lead investigator Cathy Wasserman, state epidemiologist for non-infectious conditions, and an affiliate assistant professor of epidemiology at the School.

Researchers also said they found no evidence from a review of scientific literature suggesting that playing soccer on artificial turf causes cancer.  However, “We did find significant gaps in the existing literature around the characterization of crumb rubber and its toxicity, as well as exposure assessment data,” said Tania Busch Isaksen, a lecturer in the UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and a member of the project team. Two UW graduate students, Rachel Shaffer and Rebekah Petroff, also took part in the research.

“It doesn’t appear the crumb rubber fields are causing a public health problem,” said Lauren Jenks, director for the Department of Health’s office of environmental public health sciences.

The message for the public? “The Department of Health recommends people who enjoy playing soccer continue to play regardless of the type of field surface,” Wasserman said.

Researchers, however, stressed the report was not a study of the risks of crumb rubber and of cancer associated with artificial turf, and more research is needed on potential toxicity and exposure. They said they are following ongoing research by the Environmental Protection Agency and by the state of California.

Health officials said ways to reduce potential exposures to chemicals on artificial fields include washing hands and showering after play, spitting out crumb rubber that gets into the mouth, and taking off cleats and equipment before entering the house.

The UW School of Public Health initially asked the state to lead the investigation, said Marty Cohen, associate chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. Busch Isaksen collected and facilitated the transfer of all of the health data from Coach Griffin.

Link to report: http://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/Pubs/210-091.pdf