A report has called for a ban on 3G crumb rubber football pitches across Scotland, saying that a “tougher precautionary and prevention strategy”  is “essential to protect users of all ages, the public, and workers who make, maintain and dispose of the crumb.”

It draws on the latest research on health and environmental effects of crumb rubber infill in 3G pitches, which it said, “indicates it should be replaced”.

Report author, Professor Andrew Watterson of University of Stirling, said: “We know that many chemicals in the crumb are a hazard.  We know it contains substances that are carcinogenic, we know they may be teratogens and cause birth defects.”  Yet, he described, the Scottish government is  "dithering".

 “Scottish Government and local authorities,” he said, “could act immediately and stop funding the use of crumb rubber infills in new pitches and start planning on using alternative infills as well as increasing natural grass pitch development.”  

 The report calls on the Scottish government to “issue new guidance on crumb rubber health and environmental hazards to schools, sports bodies and local authorities based on existing European Union information and decisions.”

It should also “examine purchasing and supply chain actions and funding restrictions possible to stop the installation of any new 3G pitches across Scotland now”.  

Titled  ‘Crumb Rubber in Sports Pitches in Scotland: A Case Study: Can Continued Use Be Justified?',  the study comes after at least eight years of campaigning in the UK for a ban on 3G pitches.

In 2016, promising footballer Lewis Maguire died from complications around surgery for Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 18. His father, who claimed the cancer was caused by exposure to crumb rubber, launched a campaign for their ban, saying, "The more I look into it, the more horrified I am."

“Crumb rubber,” the report says, “contains a wide range of carcinogens", noting that "there are no safe levels for carcinogens.”  

The infills, made up of tiny, black granules, most frequently come from recycled, shredded end-of-life tyres. They are also used in playgrounds and landscaping. Many tens of thousands of tons of crumb rubber have been used on full-size and mini 3G pitches over the years in Scotland. 

For too long, explained Prof Watterson, the focus has been on trying to work out the precise risks to health from the individual chemicals, of which there are many. But, he noted, enough is known about the health and environmental hazards microplastics like these pose to make a ban urgent.   

Dunfermline Press: PLAN: An application to build a new 3G football pitch at Perdiswell Leisure Centre in Worcester has

Last year the European Commission announced a ban on crumb rubber infill from pitches from 2031. But the UK and Scotland has not yet mirrored this.   “Industry and sports bodies," Prof Watterson observed, "appear to be waiting for a UK DEFRA-commissioned evidence-gathering exercise on crumb rubber and microplastics pollution due to report in spring 2025.”  

Too much reliance, he  said, has been placed by Scottish sports bodies and local authorities on crumb industry information sources and “bodies like FIFA whose advice is lagging behind the science”. The Health Protection Scotland (now Public Health Scotland) assessment, to which many  refer, is also out-of-date.  

“The Scottish Government,” he said, “and several local authorities are still procrastinating about stopping investments in crumb infill in new 3G pitches and maintaining existing 3G pitches...  They dither while they wait for yet more information from DEFRA and HSE through the UK REACH mechanism which is deeply flawed and moving at a snail’s pace dealing with many chemicals.”  

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Prof Watterson sent freedom of information requests to many different bodies as part of his research. Through this he found that Sport Scotland “does not have a policy on specific construction materials used in sports pitches and so has no policy on crumb rubber”.  

The Scottish Football Association, he noted, did not respond to his requests for information. However, he observed that their  2023 ‘Maintain’ programme indicated it would invest in both synthetic and natural grass pitch development, and would support “ 3G Playing Surfaces – upgrade or replacement of existing pitches”.  

Prof Watterson’s report also provided case studies on several of the local authorities he had approached for information  – and none had any policy on "purchase or use of crumb rubber and artificial turf for sports pitches, playgrounds, landscaping and other uses”.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament, he said, had barely addressed the issue. “Scottish Parliament and MSPs’ interest in 3G pitches rarely strayed beyond praising councils and other bodies when new 3G pitches were built.”  

Dunfermline Press: Llanfyllin's 3G pitch.

But the issue of crumb rubber does not solely revolve around player-health. There is also a wider environmental impact of thee particles as they spread. Crumb rubber, the report says, is also “a source of microplastics and nanoplastics that do not biodegrade and may persist in the environment for hundreds of years”.   

One study showed that artificial turf crumb rubber infill from shredded end-of-life vehicle tyres is one of the largest individual contributors to microplastics released from intentionally added products into the European environment.”  

The issue is also a global one. Earlier this week, Environment and Human Health, inc. a group of physicians and health professionals in the United States, issued a letter expressing their concern that there is “Mounting evidence that the rubber tyre infill material can be carcinogenic and therefore there could be a health risk for those students and athletes who play on these fields.  

  “The safest material for students and athletes to play on,” they wrote, “is grass. We believe that what has happened with synthetic turf fields has been a massive failure of government to protect the public by allowing shredded-up waste tyres to get into the marketplace and put where children, students and athletes play. As a result, a generation of children and athletes has been put at risk.”  

 As a result of the EU ban, said Prof Watterson, the crumb rubber industry is already beginning to accept there must be a move away from the material towards other non-synthetic materials.   

“If the industry fails to develop suitable alternatives, “ he explained, “it knows it will lose lucrative major markets in Europe. They are preparing now.”  

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We work closely with sportscotland and the Sports Pitch Construction Association and its code of practice which acknowledges the difficulty in trying to balance the health and wellbeing benefits that come from the use of 3G pitches with environmental sustainability factors.

“There are currently no widely available alternative infill products with proven durability on the market that are as effective, suitable for all UK weather conditions and deliver the required performance standards.

“At least 95% of the material in use falls within the limits set in restriction under EU REACH.

“The need for a future restriction remains under review.”