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Proposed sports field at Toronto school raises debate over rubber turf

On top of zoning controversies, the planned sports field at Central Technical School is raising another debate: whether rubber turf is safe. Ontario Municipal Board hears from community members who oppose project, saying material is not safe.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On top of zoning controversies, the planned sports field at Central Technical School is raising another debate: whether rubber turf is safe.

Concerns over the potential toxicity of "crumb rubber," or recycled tires, has led to the reduced use of fields made of them in New York and Los Angeles, though there's little long-term research on their health effects.

At an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearing on Monday, several community members who spoke against the Central Tech project said the turf was their main worry. Two of the domed, privately run sports fields have already been built at Toronto District School Board properties, but the board and the company behind the Central Tech project say they're considering using other materials in the future.

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Toronto Public Health is set to release a report on artificial turf in the next few weeks, says the agency. However, the product isn't regulated for safety purposes in Canada, so building decisions are up to sports facilities' owners.

Crumb rubber turf, which looks like small black pellets at the base of artificial grass, has become common in the past decade or so. Some studies have found low health risks, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says its research is too limited to reach full conclusions.

Last fall, the question drew new attention after an NBC investigation showed anecdotal evidence of high cancer rates among certain groups of young athletes, particularly soccer goalies, whose illnesses had been recorded by a Seattle soccer coach. Goalies not only have more skin contact with turf, but they are more likely to swallow it, said the NBC report.

At the OMB hearing, Rochelle Rubinstein asked that Central Tech be required to put up health and safety signs, including ones telling people not to eat or drink on the field and to wash their hands, clean their shoes and shower after leaving.

Ms. Rubinstein, one of five residents who registered to speak at the hearing, also presented documents, including a letter to Toronto Public Health from New York pediatrician Joel Forman. He identified styrene and butadiene as the two main components of tire rubber, saying the first is a toxin and the second is carcinogenic.

A Health Canada spokesman said the federal agency doesn't regulate artificial turf since it isn't considered a consumer product.

Cork and sand can both be used as turf infill instead of rubber. Razor Management Inc., the company that will build the planned Central Tech facility, hasn't settled on what product it will use, said president Matthew Raizenne.

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The company is considering a system that doesn't require any infill, but instead has a thicker, grassier surface on top of a one-inch underpad "almost like styrofoam," he said.

TDSB spokesman Ryan Bird said the decision would be made in conjunction with the school board. Central Tech got a verbal go-ahead from the OMB for the domed field and is expected to have formal approval later this spring.

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