Among food manufacturers there is a joke that, in England, if you are ever accused of poisoning someone, you’re in trouble; their partner, even deeper trouble; and their children, really deep trouble. But if you’re accused of poisoning their dog, you’d better leave the country.
Biting back at “bad science”
In the real world, such irrationalities can override hard scientific evidence about the risks or non-risks posed by materials and products – especially when the issue is played out in national and international media – TV, print and on-line – outlets.
Another unfortunate feature here is the way that rival manufacturing industries often jump on the scare-story bandwagon to gain competitive advantage for their products.
Such problems are keenly felt right now by rubber manufacturers and recyclers, who are facing heightened regulatory and public scrutiny over the safety of end-of-life tire materials – on both sides of the Atlantic.
Just over a year ago, US broadcaster NBC News started running reports linking the use of crumb tire rubber on soccer pitches to high rates of cancer among people, particularly females, who had played soccer on artificial fields.
Prompted by a couple of politicians who picked up on the issue, president Obama initiated a major federal study of the potential health risks of crumb rubber in athletic turf and playground surfacing.
In Europe, so far, the issue has stayed mainly in the regulatory domain: linked to the European Commission’s efforts to extend the scope of its REACH chemical safety regulations.
After months of wavering, the EC recently decided that, as a mixture, crumb rubber from ELTs was not covered by a new restriction on the use of materials containing certain polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in consumer products.
Nevertheless, uncertainty created by the debate led to moves by individual EU states, including Germany, to ban rubber granulate from these applications, which represent around half of the market for scrap tire rubber.
And while the EC decision removed one serious threat to the rubber recycling industry, the European Tyre & Rubber Manufacturers’ Association (ETRMA) is aware of further potential threats to the continued use of ELT crumb rubber in sports surfacing.
In a statement, ETRMA said it will closely follow the new study initiated by the Obama administration, as well as separate studies being conducted by authorities in California.
The Brussels-based industry group added that “several scientific studies based on proper risk assessment have shown that the presence of PAH impurities in crumb rubber poses no threat to human health.”
According to Michael Blumenthal, president, MarShay Inc. – a US consultancy serving the scrap tire industry – the case against crumb rubber is being largely driven by single-issue lobby groups.
“The arguments are always the same and they are always flawed. They often make a lot of mistakes and use bad science,” Blumenthal said during a panel discussion at the European Tyre Recycling Association’s annual conference this March in Brussels.
“But, if there is a perception that something is wrong and that perception goes unchallenged it becomes reality. And that is what we are seeing now in the industry,” the industry analyst added.
And while there is a lot of good scientific information available to counter these claims, Blumenthal warned: “This is not being relayed to the media: there is no one coordinating this and the efforts that we have seen have been very poorly undertaken by industry. This issue is not going to go away, it is going to get worse.”
So, even if these new studies confirm the safety of crumb rubber, industry must become much more effective at informing the general public about the safety of rubber materials and about the level of any potential risks they may pose.
Otherwise the agenda will continue to be set by lobbyists and media groups with little understanding of or empathy for science.