The Hartford Courant (Conn.), Feb. 19:

Three federal agencies are teaming up to – finally, we hope – answer questions about the possible health risks of school playing fields made from recycled tires, thanks to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s lobbying of President Barack Obama.

That’s great news. There’s growing concern about the synthetic surfaces at many school grounds, and conclusive research is needed.

The question is whether the federal study – by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Consumer Product Safety Commission – will have something definitive to say on the subject. Over the past decade, many studies have been inconclusive.

At issue is crumb rubber – ground-up used tires – used as infill (the equivalent of soil) on synthetic turf fields. Alarms have been raised about an apparent increase in the cancer rate of student athletes who played on such surfaces. Soccer goalies are thought to be particularly at risk because they frequently have whole-body contact with the artificial surface.

Former U.S. women’s soccer national team goalkeeper Amy Griffin has compiled a list of athletes who have played on artificial turf and who now have cancer. Of the 200 on her list last fall, half were goalies.

Still, the state Department of Public Health says on its website that “current information from a number of tire crumb studies does not show an elevated health risk from playing on fields with artificial turf or tire crumbs.” The department goes on to note that “there is still uncertainty and additional investigation is warranted.”

And that’s the problem with the research so far: Partisans on both sides have what they consider conclusive proof of safety or peril.

For example, a Yale study last year found that some of the chemicals in the crumb rubber samples it looked at are probable carcinogens. The study, however, was commissioned by an advocacy organization headed by a longtime gadfly on the topic, Nancy Alderman. She deserves great credit for keeping this issue before the public, but critics could question whether there was “funding bias” here.

Federal EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, formerly head of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, didn’t help matters when she declined last fall to answer a reporter’s question on whether crumb rubber turf is safe: “I have nothing to say about that right now,” she told “NBC Nightly News.”

Perhaps the project now being undertaken at the federal level with the EPA’s help will change that.

There are alternatives to artificial turf infill, but many are more expensive than crumb rubber. Coconut-based fiber, for example, is all natural, but it generally costs more than rubber and has a much shorter life span. The choices add financial complexity to the already difficult decision about whether to replace natural grass with something else.

In the meantime, dozens of crumb rubber fields have been installed in Connecticut. Communities that are debating whether to install even more fields need to do their homework: Hold public hearings, invite experts to testify, read what’s been written so far and explore alternatives.

It will be a difficult decision for them to make until the issue is definitively settled.