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How industry lobbying got toxic artificial sports fields exempted from new EU REACH rules

A documentary program broadcast on Dutch TV last week has sparked major concerns about the health risks of playing football on artificial turf fields made with rubber granulate from old car tyres. Corporate lobbying seems to have been behind the lack of regulation of these surfaces used by thousands of children every week.

Since the program was shown, many Dutch football clubs have announced they will cancel training on such fields or stop using them altogether. Artificial turf fields were last year excluded from the scope of a new EU chemicals regulation for rubber products (part of the so-called REACH rules), despite the high doses of toxic chemicals in the rubber granulate. The documentary program highlighted how industry lobbying changed the Dutch government's stance, which led to the EU's decision to exemptregulation of artificial turf fields. 

The Zembla documentary revealed that artificial football fields made from old tyres are likely to expose football players to cancer risk. There are over 2000 such fields in The Netherlands, on which football players, including thousands of children, are playing. The tyres being used contain toxic and carcinogenic substances and are normally seen as chemical waste, but there are no restrictions on their use on football fields (or in playgrounds). Tyres can include lead, cadmium, arsenic, dioxins and other toxins, but so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (“PAHs”) pose a particular health risk. Zembla reveals that the lack of regulation in The Netherlands is based on a flawed study from 2006 involving only a tiny number of football players observed over a very short period of time. Martin van den Berg (professor of toxicology at the University of Utrecht) pointed out that other studies found a concentration of toxic substances 10-100 times higher than the current EU chemicals standards. Van den Berg concludes that the Dutch government, and the EU, have failed to take a precautionary approach and ensure that artificial football pitches are safe. Alternatives exist (based on cork and coconut fibres) and are only a little more expensive, but only a small minority of municipalities and sports clubs choose these alternatives. 

Zembla shows that artificial football fields escaped regulation because of lobbying pressure from the vested interests of the rubber tyre industry. The European Commission had proposed to regulate rubber granulate as part of EU chemicals rules by setting strict maximum standards on the toxic chemicals in rubber products with which consumers can have skin contact. Email correspondence obtained by Zembla via a freedom of information request shows Dutch tyre lobby group VACO (not on the EU transparency register) saw the proposed EU rules as a threat to the tyre sector. VACO and individual companies lobbied the Dutch government, including the environment agency RIVM, to change its stance in EU negotiations. The Dutch government had initially supported strict rules in order “to prevent the general public getting in immidiate contact to the infill material.” The lobbying offensive included an October 2015 meeting where the lobbyists told Dutch government officials that the EU proposal would mean that 2000 football fields would be banned. This contributed to the Dutch government changing its position, which led to the EU proposal being reversed. In an email a Dutch civil servant informed his EU colleagues that the Dutch government had changed its position “for pragmatic reasons”. There were no scientific considerations behind this decision, professor Van den Berg points out in the documentary.

Also Brussels-based industry groups such as the European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers' Association (ETRMA) were lobbying to exempt rubber granulate from REACH, without having any evidence that the product is safe. Zembla has obtained minutes from a July 2016 meeting of ETRMA lobbyists with the European chemicals agency (ECHA). During the meeting, ETRMA admitted that it did not know which toxic substances are in the rubber granulate and in what quantities. ETRMA told ECHA that “in the real world today there is no material and source control, and there is also no harmonised analysis for rubber infill.” ETRMA, according to its entry in the EU's lobby transparency register, spends 600,000-700,000 euro per year on lobbying in Brussels. The European Synthetic Turf Organisation (ESTO), another industry lobbying against REACH rules for granulate in-fills, is not in the EU's (voluntary) lobby transparency register. 

The European Commission has asked the chemicals agency to carry out a literature review on the health risks emerging from rubber granulate, the results of which will be published next year. In the Zembla documentary professor Martin van den Berg finds this insufficient, arguing that proper studies on the health impact on sports players should be undertaken. The precautionary principle should be applied and as long as there is a lack of clarity, football clubs should not play on the fields, professor Van den Berg concluded in the program.

The Zembla documentary reveals a disturbing example of how corporate lobbying at the national level ends up scuppering or weakening much-needed EU regulation to protect public health.

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