One recess last spring at Loma Portal Elementary School, Erika Lundeen saw something odd. Children rolling around on the field had little black specks on their bodies.
“Some were even picking them up and chucking it at each other,” Lundeen, a substitute teacher, said.
The particles were crushed-up car tires known as crumb rubber, commonly used as a filler between blades of artificial grass. The rubber acts as a cushion and is the infill of choice for major synthetic turf companies nationwide, including San Diego Unified’s favorite, FieldTurf .
Lundeen began researching crumb rubber online and came across news articles about a group of soccer players in Washington who were diagnosed with lymphoma, leukemia and other types of cancer.
University of Washington assistant soccer coach Amy Griffin noticed the pattern and created Amy’s List  — an online database of players with cancer who played on artificial turf. There are more than 220 names on it , most of them soccer players under 26 years old.
In February, three federal agencies announced the launch of a joint study on the safety of recycled tire crumb  in fields and playgrounds, saying existing studies do not adequately evaluate the health risks of tire crumb exposure.
The coalition, which includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, plans to present initial findings by the end of the year.
The same safety commission declared the fields safe in 2008, but that’s since been walked back.
“‘Safe to play on’ means something to parents that I don’t think we intended to convey and I don’t think we should have conveyed,” Elliot Kaye, chairman of the commission, said at a U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing last May .
California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment launched its own three-year, $3 million crumb rubber safety study last June .
State officials recently compiled a list of more than 900 artificial turf fields across California using information gathered from the major turf companies. Here’s where they’re located:
Map by Tristan Loper
Amid public anxiety, the city of New York and Los Angeles Unified hit pause on using rubber in fields, but San Diego Unified is forging ahead with plans for 55 new artificial fields by 2019. Costs typically run from $350,000 to over $1 million, for a total cost of at least $19 million.
There is currently no conclusive evidence the cancer seen among the soccer players resulted from their contact with crumb rubber, and district officials are confident the fields do not pose a threat.
“The observations of a University of Washington assistant soccer coach led to a public synthetic turf safety discussion where both scientific information and misinformation have been promulgated by means of the internet, media and social media,” Linda Zintz, a spokeswoman for the district, said in a statement.
FieldTurf recently lobbied against  state legislation that would have halted crumb rubber field installations at California’s schools and parks until new government safety studies could be completed. The bill died earlier this year.
State officials did crack down on another turf concern several years ago: lead.
In 2008, then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown sued three major players in the artificial turf market over excessive lead in the synthetic grass. A 2010 settlement  reached with FieldTurf required the company to reduce lead levels and replace old fields with high lead content at a discount.
“FieldTurf stands firmly behind the safety of its fields,” FieldTurf officials said in a statement. “We exclusively use polyethylene fibers, which are not made with any lead. Our fields overall contain only trace amounts of lead – at levels well below government standards for children’s toys.”
At least five fields in San Diego County  tested at levels 20 times above trace amounts allowed, according to the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health. Among them: La Jolla High, Torrey Pines High and Grossmont High .
‘Go Rub Your Nose in it’
Lundeen, whose own children attend school at Silver Gate Elementary, thought to herself, “I’m so grateful my kids aren’t exposed to any of that.”
That relief didn’t last long.
In March this year, her son came home from school with news Silver Gate was getting a new turf field. San Diego Unified officials confirmed it would have crumb rubber infill like the dozens of others already installed throughout the district — and dozens more  on the district’s bond program project list.
Map by Tristan Loper
Lundeen pushed for a moratorium, and launched a “Keep Turf Safe ” Facebook group and two online petitions, one just for Silver Gate  and another districtwide . She also made pleas to school board  members and the principal to postpone.
Silver Gate Principal Maria Fowler took the issue to the school’s governance team. If a majority of the group wanted the new turf field, things would proceed.
After school on June 8, the group gathered in a classroom just a stone’s throw away from the field, which currently consists of decomposed granite.
Scott Isaacson, a parent who attended but was not part of the governance team panel, said his daughter and her friends are excited about the new field. He said his first impression of Silver Gate was, “Great school, but what’s with the dirt field?”
Physical education teacher Kelli Topliff expressed support for the change, saying the current surface is uneven and a hazard.
“The kids fall. They get cut up,” Topliff said. “There are plenty of really bad chemicals in that already that we should probably be concerned about … And it’s just dirty.”
A student’s grandmother in attendance objected.
“I don’t buy the argument it’s the lesser of two evils,” she said.
Parent Brian Camet also attended to voice his opposition.
“If you are for it and you haven’t played on it, go play on it. Take a couple spills,” he said. “Go rub your nose in it, and then I want you to go eat a sandwich without washing your hands and see how you feel.”
Brian Hahne, a parent and gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps., also shared his concerns.
“Up at MCAS Miramar, they have this crumb rubber. I have worked out on it, and I’ve taken my Marines to work out on it. The heat is a huge factor. It can get to a point where you can get first degree burns,” Hahne said. “If you are trying to do anything with exposed skin, such as pushups, sit-ups, anything like that in the full light of day, it will get to a heat where people are getting burned.”
Fowler said she was comfortable with her own children playing on the field, and pointed out other potentially cancer-causing agents the public is already exposed to, like chlorine in pools and sewage in San Diego Bay.
“I’m not going to tell my kids not to go in there,” Fowler said.
Lundeen rejects that logic.
“Remember there used to be smoking on airplanes,” she said in an interview. “Chemicals are totally innocent until proven guilty, and why are we letting our kids be guinea pigs?”
Lundeen questions a 2010 UC Berkeley study  funded by manufacturing industry advocates that’s been held up by Fowler and district officials because it deemed crumb rubber infill a “generally safe application.”
“You’ve gotta look at where your research is coming from … Are we pushing a product here, or are we looking after the safety of our children?”
When a vote was called at Silver Gate, the panel voted 8-1 to proceed with an October crumb rubber field installation.
An Alternative Emerges in University City
Thirteen miles north in University City, another group of parents mobilized over the same issue last fall.
The outcome was much different.
Kendra Cole, a parent of two children at Curie Elementary School, gathered 140 petition signatures to halt the crumb rubber field scheduled for installation this summer.
Some parents said if the field went in, they’d prevent their kids from playing on it.
“This is like sand, but it’s rubber. It’s ground-up tires. Just like when you go to the beach, it gets in your hands, eyes,” Cole said. “Some of these particles are so fine, you don’t even know you are inhaling it.”
Cole, like Lundeen, said district officials offered up studies they said proved the material was safe. Both felt they were outdated, biased or too small in scope to be conclusive — rationales federal and state officials have also given for why a new round of studies is necessary.
District leaders stood by the turf when asked to respond to the parent concerns.
“District staff have reviewed a number of scientific studies conducted by reputable universities and research institutions. The district is not aware of a study that found a link between negative health effects and crumb rubber,” said Zintz, the district spokeswoman.
As for concerns about fields getting too hot, district officials say they’re opting for a rubber, sand and cork infill mixture this time around that is roughly 35 degrees cooler than traditional rubber infill. Fields will also be sprayed down with water occasionally to cool and clean them.
Cole wasn’t satisfied and transmitted this message to the district: No crumb rubber. Only natural grass, an alternate infill or no change at all to their dirt field would be accepted by parents.
She looped in school board member John Lee Evans, who got the district’s chief of facilities, Lee Dulgeroff, to a meeting.
District officials told Cole infill alternatives offered by the same company, FieldTurf, hadn’t been adequately tested and were too expensive, as was the cost of maintaining natural grass. Instead, they offered to make the planned crumb rubber field larger. That’s not what Cole and other parents had in mind.
Offers to fundraise to pay for an alternative infill were rebuffed.
Getting nowhere, Dulgeroff pivoted and brought up the possibility of making Curie’s field a joint-use project with the city. The public and school would share the field. The district would pay less money to install a natural grass field, and the city would maintain it.
The idea worked.
Curie’s field is now part of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s Play All Day Parks Program , a city and school district partnership that aims to create 30 new joint-use parks citywide in the next 10 years. A grass field for Curie is in the planning stages. Installation could be a couple years away.
“I was over the moon. … That’s the best of all worlds,” said Cole. “I’m very proud of how this went. … This is the safe alternative. This is what our kids need, because the crumb rubber is poison in my mind.”
But Cole said she worries about other schools now. “They are not communicating they are installing this stuff.”