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Cancer And Artificial Turf: Former British Health Exec Calls For Research04:25

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Concerns have arisen about the safety of artificial turf. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)closemore
Concerns have arisen about the safety of artificial turf. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

Nigel Maguire had a career in the health field. Until two years ago, he was the Chief Executive of the National Health Service in Cumbria, in the north of England. Then he retired, to care for his son.

"My son, Lewis Maguire, was a very avid soccer player," Maguire says. "He was a goalkeeper. And he played soccer for his school, for his county and he also was undertaking soccer trials at Leeds United Football Club, which is a big club in England. And it was during his time, halfway through his 12-week trial, that he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Stage IV."

We are playing -- taking risks with our children’s welfare.

Nigel Maguire

At the time, Nigel Maguire saw no connection between his goalkeeper son’s passion and his illness. Four weeks ago, that changed, when Lewis Maguire turned on a TV program featuring Amy Griffin, the goalkeeper coach at the University of Washington.

"And my son was watching Sky Sports, and he said to me, 'Dad, you've got to listen to this. They’re talking about synthetic football pitches and crumb rubber being associated with cancer. But that’s not just it, it’s lymphoma specifically.' And he said, 'The scary bit, which really freaked me out,' his words, not mine 'was that it was more associated with soccer goal keepers.'

Crumb rubber, which makes up the little pellets in artificial turf, is made from shredded tires. Construction of a soccer field requires about 25,000 of those tires. According to Maguire, they come with all sorts of suspicious elements.

"So, for example, it’s recorded that you have mercury, lead, arsenic, zinc — very toxic to the human body," Maguire says. "But you also have some known carcinogens, like benzenes are a known carcinogen. You have PAAH’s, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are known to be carcinogenic, and you also have MBT, which is Mercapto Benzo Thiazole, which the WHO have, in the last couple of weeks, said is probably carcinogenic."

Because goalkeepers dive to the ground continuously during practice and a lot during games, they are the most likely players on the field to inhale those substances, swallow them and get them stuck to open cuts. Amy Griffin, formerly with the U.S. Women’s Team, has collected the names of more than 100 former goalkeepers who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, scores of them with lymphoma. While Nigel Maguire understands that this evidence is anecdotal, he feels it mustn’t be ignored.

"It is convincing in terms of raising questions," he says. "Because what I don’t want to say at this time is say, 'Well, here you go. Here is the evidence that says there is a link.' Because all of the industry scientists will then say, 'Well, it’s not scientifically proven. It hasn’t been peer-reviewed.' And they’ll rubbish it, and therefore I don’t want to go down that line."

Nigel Maguire is pursuing a less dramatic line. Realizing that he’s potentially taking on an enormous industry thrilled to be making millions of dollars by recycling refuse nobody wants, he’s opting for quiet logic.

"In the U.K., you’re not allowed to bury tires. You can’t put them in landfill. You can’t burn them. You're only allowed to put them under cover and store them. Now, it strikes me as being strange, to say the least, that you can’t bury it, you can’t burn it, but, hey, it’s absolutely fine to put tons and tons of this stuff on children’s playing fields."

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Center For Disease Control, and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Division jointly announced research into the safety of the artificial turf fields containing crumb rubber.

Over the next few weeks, Maguire will be writing England’s Chief Medical Officer as well as the Secretary of State and his local representative in Parliament, asking them to look into the safety of artificial turf fields.

"We really do need to take this seriously," says Maguire. "We are playing — taking risks with our children’s welfare, and until we know that prolonged exposure does not pose a risk — until that time comes — then I will continue to lobby. And I’ll continue to look into this matter with rigor."

This segment aired on March 5, 2016.

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