3G pitches came into regular use in the late 1990s, and have received official approval by the FA and Scottish FA. Typically made from synthetic grass mixed with a blend of sand and rubber, the surface claims to offer many of the benefits of real grass; good grip, ease on joints and a reduced risk of injury to players when they fall. They are considered more economic: being weather-proof and less prone to wear. Some upgraded versions are referred to as “4G”, or even “5G” though there is some debate as to whether advanced versions are anything more than a top of the range 3G pitch.
In March, pictures were posted on Twitter of friction burns sustained by Merthyr RFC players when playing a cup tie on a 3G pitch. These did not make for pleasant viewing, and it was later suggested that the issue had arisen from a lack of care of the pitch, or at least a lack of awareness of the maintenance requirements. In dry conditions, a failure to water 3G pitches can result in a hard playing surface with no give in the grass, which is apparently what caused the burns.
Beyond superficial injuries, a more serious concern arises from the materials used in 3G pitches. Last year, a former NHS chief executive called for a government review of 3G pitches amid claims that his son contracted Hodgkin’s Lymphoma from the rubber pellets on the pitch. Players will commonly complain that the crumb rubber used in the pitches gets into their eyes, in cuts and grazes, and into their mouths, where they are often swallowed. This results in the chemicals in the rubber entering their system.
The issue centres on the composition and provenance of these rubber crumb pellets, which provide the cushion like surface on a 3G pitch. In Holland, use of the pitches was extremely popular. However subsequent health concerns have resulted in many pitches being ripped up, and the Dutch health minister has commissioned a study of rubber crumb to be carried out. The European Commission has also invited the European Chemicals Agency to report on the issue.
Bodies defending the use of 3G pitches in the UK argue that the rubber used to make the pellets for UK 3G pitches has been more rigorously tested than in Holland, and recycled from safer sources. It has been alleged that rubber in Holland has been obtained from recycled petrochemical pipes, whereas in the UK, recycled tyres are frequently used. Certain safety standards apply to tyres manufactured domestically in the UK, limiting the levels of harmful chemicals used. Compliance with these will, apparently, offer protection from the risks under review in Holland.
Still, the suggestion that manufacturers are “only” using recycled tyres doesn’t exactly allay concerns. Academics also remain unconvinced. Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling has warned that, regardless of the testing procedure adopted in the UK, rubber tyres still contain traces of hazardous carcinogens. The UK government has come under pressure to take a similar stance to Holland in respect of 3G pitches, but has, to date, declined to do so.
Under products law, companies manufacturing and distributing 3G pitches must provide consumers with adequate warnings of risks of a product, such as labelling and clear instructions for use. In addition, they must take precautions against these risks, for example, by having quality control procedures in place such as adequate pre-market testing. Companies are also required to keep themselves informed of any risks that have arisen with the product, through post-market surveillance. Failure to comply with these obligations could result in regulatory enforcement action, including a product recall, withdrawal from the market, fines and even imprisonment, in addition to civil liability for damages.
The best route for campaigners looking to ensure the safety of these products could be to work directly with those putting 3G pitches on the market. This is a safety concern which is likely to increase in prominence rather than disappear. From a manufacturer’s perspective, taking ownership of this would not only provide protection from sanctions and litigation, but could restore confidence in their product.
This article was published in The Herald Scotland on 15 May 2017.