Concern is being increasingly raised over allegations that there is a link between cancer and the materials used in artificial turf installed at a number of professional football clubs, notably in Scotland. In 1987, a former professional footballer who once played for Swindon Town lost his life to mesothelioma cancer, aged just 62. Recently, former England left-back player, Stuart Pearce, admitted his lack of asbestos awareness to the potential health risks of breathing in the deadly dust while working part time as an electrician at the start of his football career.

More than 158 footballer players in the US diagnosed with cancer are believed to have been in contact with “crumb rubber infill” made from-crushed tyres, which is added to artificial turf. The gravel-sized black pellets, which protect synthetic grass from wear and tear and can absorb more water, are spread across the pitch surface to improve the natural bounce of the ball.

However, research has revealed that old tyre materials may contain cancer-causing agents, such as mercury and lead. It’s feared that the rubber pellets can be accidentally swallowed, or enter arm or leg wounds, when a player falls to the ground. Six in ten of the US footballers with cancer were goalkeepers. Currently, around 9 in 10 of artificial football pitches in Scotland use crumb rubber infill, including 12 professional and Premiership clubs.

Exposure occurred not on the pitch but at his workplace

When former Swindon Town footballer, George Hunt, was diagnosed with the rare peritoneal (stomach) mesothelioma cancer, the exposure to asbestos occurred not on the pitch but at his workplace – the Great Western Railway Works, Swindon. The right back player was first employed at the Swindon depot just before joining the army at the outbreak of WW2. but after his retirement from professional football, returned to employment at the railway works from 1958 onwards.

Wherever a railway building works, which built and serviced the carriages was located, a legacy as an asbestos ‘blackspot’ has remained. In York, more than 141 deaths, including 59 coachbuilders have known to have died from the incurable mesothelioma cancer and at least five or six mesothelioma cases are confirmed in York every year.

Asbestos is known to have been widely used at Great Western Railway Works, for example, to insulate boilers, pipes, brakes, gaskets and in the electrical and heat insulation in the walls, ceiling and flooring of carriages and buffet cars. The high numbers of mesothelioma cases diagnosed in the area often led the fatal condition to be called ‘the Swindon disease’.

Following three decades of continuous employment at the Swindon works, Hunt was diagnosed with the incurable cancer of the stomach linings in 1987, two years after the most dangerous blue and brown asbestos types were banned in the UK.

Protective equipment were not commonly available to the workforce

Many statements from former railway workers state that in common with most industries during this time, health and safety information or protective equipment, such as special breathing masks simply were not commonly available to the workforce. Although the removal of asbestos insulation from train coaches and issuing protective clothing to workers had begun, British rail has continued to pay mesothelioma compensation to victims of exposure for more than 30 years.

In 2014, a former maintenance worker at British Rail worker was diagnosed with mesothelioma more than forty years after retiring from his job. Over a period of twenty years the victim was regularly exposed to asbestos lagging wrapped around the steam pipes heating the railway workshops as well as removing asbestos lagged pipe work and locomotive boiler linings.

One year later the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) announced its latest asbestos awareness campaign aimed at the building trade skills industry. Former England footballer, and Nottingham Forest manager, Stuart Pearce, gave his support.

“Many think it’s a thing of the past

According to Pearce, there was every possibility that he could have been exposed to asbestos “without knowing” in his very early playing days. Between 1978 and 1983, Pearce was working as an electrician while playing with non-league side, Wealdstone. Just prior to the 1985 ban, around 50,000 tons of asbestos was still being imported annually to be used as insulation and fireproofing in major industries such as railway, automobile shipbuilding and construction.

Pearce admits there was very little understanding of the potential deadly risks at the time among ordinary workers, “Today there is no excuse… most people know how dangerous asbestos but many think it’s a thing of the past”, and warns that asbestos “can still be found in walls, ceilings, even floor tiles and guttering – basically in any type of building built before the year 2000”.

The legacy of potential risk of exposure to asbestos at any workplace continues to affect men and women in all types of occupations, from maintenance men to hairdressers, paper mill workers to teachers, firefighters to shopworkers, even sportsmen, such as footballers.