BCC turf field criticism fails test of science

To the editor:

The Eagle has recently published a number of letters that express concern over an alleged cancer risk associated with a proposed artificial turf playing field at BCC.

As a Ph.D. chemist with decades of experience in medico-scientific research, I would like to add some observations on matters that are well understood within the scientific community but evidently have not become common knowledge within the general population.

First is the idea that the field will be dangerous because the rubber crumb contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are linked to cancer. This is true enough, but by itself meaningless when you consider that many everyday items are linked to cancer: steaks, bacon, vodka, the sun, sunscreen, automobile exhaust, gasoline, charcoal and charcoal lighter fluid. The list is endless, and the point is that we have to ask not "Is this chemical linked to cancer, in the abstract?" but "How much risk is associated with the exposure we will experience?"


As a scientist, I cannot guarantee that no one will ever find any link to any potential hazard. But as an informed citizen and taxpayer, I can state with great confidence that competent authorities have looked into this matter and they find no evidence for concern. That is why the people complaining about the field have lost every single appeal: They have no evidence to support their position, only unfounded fears.

You may ask about the 200 soccer players who are alleged to have developed cancer. That story falls apart upon consideration of a few simple facts. The CDC tells us that more than 55,000 Americans under the age of 40 develop cancer, year after year. From that baseline it is not surprising that an enterprising coach can select 200 cases from an ill-defined population taken over many years — soccer is popular, perhaps 10 percent of young people play it every year — and the "surprising" finding of 100 of those players being goalies is a testament more to sampling bias than to the true incidence of cancer among young athletes.

Which is to say, there is a reason that people earn Ph.D.'s in epidemiology. It's easy to run a careless study that produces nonsense results. One has to be attentive, and know what he is doing to generate reliable conclusions in these subtle matters.

So on Oct. 7 a letter was published asking that no action be taken on the BCC field until after the publication of a White House report on the subject. I say that this would be foolish, as there is no reason to suspect that the report will declare the fields to be dangerous and every reason to suspect that the White House — which is, after all, a political rather than a scientific institution — is merely trying to placate a noisy constituency without inflicting too much damage on the rule of reason and law in this country.

Mark Roberson, Pittsfield