In 2016, RIVM conducted an exceptional study, commissioned by the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport. It was exceptional in that a difficult question had to be answered within a very short time frame: ‘Is it safe to play sports on synthetic turf pitches that use rubber granulate infill?’. The nature of the question extended the study beyond the scope of purely scientific research, since the issue affects society as a whole.
On 5 October 2016, the Dutch TV programme Zembla broadcasted an episode entitled ‘Dangerous Play’, which raised questions and led to widespread concern. The extent of public concern in response was apparent from the many phone calls and emails that RIVM received after the show aired. Local and national politicians also asked questions. Several days later, the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport commissioned RIVM to investigate the matter, giving the institute two months to clarify the risks of playing sports on rubber granulate.
People posted about the topic on social media over 4000 times in a single day. In total, over 12,000 posts about rubber granulate and RIVM appeared on social media from October through December 2016.
RIVM launched a major research project in response. The study mapped out and evaluated the knowledge available about rubber granulate and conducted a risk assessment. Samples were taken from 100 sports pitches in the Netherlands, and migration of substances from rubber granulate was simulated in laboratory tests. The aim was to arrive at a solidly substantiated analysis of the substances found in the rubber granulate used as infill on the Dutch pitches, evaluate the substances that were potentially hazardous to humans which could be released from the rubber granulate, and estimate the extent to which these substances might come into contact with the human body. Moreover, various methods were used to investigate whether there were indications of any correlation between leukaemia, lymphoma, and playing sports on rubber granulate. Standardised European methods were used to calculate the additional risks of cancer for children under 6 years old, children who train twice a week and then play a match, children and adults who are particularly talented football players and therefore train on rubber granulate even more frequently (five times a week for several hours), and a separate calculation for people who train and play as football keepers from childhood up to the age of 50.
Els van Schie, director of the Environment and Safety Division at RIVM: “Since the commissioned study went beyond pure scientific research, I established a sounding board group to address the societal aspects. When discussing matters that affect society, it is key to sit down with all the stakeholders, so you can share information and indications and address the societal question at hand. For this approach to work, each partner needs to carry out their own role and task independently and respect the interests of others. This wide-ranging group managed beautifully.” In addition, a scientific sounding board was established to advise RIVM on the research methodology that was chosen for the study, as well as the analysis of the findings.
RIVM opted for a communication strategy centred on providing fast, clear, transparent information appropriate to the sentiments that were prevalent in society. The RIVM website was the main tool used to provide access to the information. Quite a lot of information was published here even before the study was concluded. Questions and answers were updated constantly as new questions came in. A team kept the website updated, analysed media coverage, conducted a public perception survey among 1000 respondents in the Netherlands, and answered questions asked by media, the public and politicians. In addition, the team supported the Municipal Public Health Services in advising sport clubs and municipal governments as accurately as possible at the local level. People who had expressed concerns through various channels were invited to visit RIVM to discuss the matter. The aim here was twofold: on one hand, to provide information about the RIVM study, and on the other, to gain a better understanding of the emotions underlying the questions.
On 20 December 2016, RIVM published its conclusions: playing sports on rubber granulates is safe. The health risks of playing sports on synthetic turf pitches with rubber granulate infill are virtually negligible. The study attracted major media coverage. The matter is not entirely resolved yet; it continues to attract public attention, and RIVM will keep a close eye on the latest insights as they become available.