When John Murray was shopping for an artificial-turf field for Camden Catholic High School, he found a wealth of information to help him make a decision.

The piles of documents he gathered, however, did not include a federal report that might answer widening concerns about toxic chemicals found in the ground-up tires that provide the turf's cushioning.

That's because the report doesn't exist - yet.

It's been more than a year since the Environmental Protection Agency began looking to see if the turf releases such chemicals and might be harmful to children. With turf fields continuing to open at a rate of roughly 800 a year - Camden Catholic's tire-cushioned field opened Oct. 3 - federal officials are under increasing pressure to say whether any risk exists.

Some watchdog groups say the EPA is stalling. "If safeguarding children's health is a top priority at EPA, why can't this multibillion-dollar agency afford to take a hard look at what is in our playgrounds, schoolyards and athletic fields?" said Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

A national spotlight first shone on the popular synthetic surfaces in April 2008 when New Jersey health officials announced that high levels of lead dust were discovered in artificial grass fibers on aging Newark and Hoboken fields.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission quickly launched a limited study to see if the fibers posed a health threat. In July, the commission said there wasn't any.

That left the EPA to assess the tire crumbs used as cushioning for the turf. Used tires typically contain numerous toxic chemicals, including mercury and lead. And about 25,000 tires go into an average football field.

Last fall, the agency did a limited test at three fields with tire crumbs to see if a full study was warranted, spokesman Dale Kemery said. The raw data - collected at nose level of children, about three feet above the fields - so far show minimal risk, he said, but the results are still being analyzed.

In July, PEER filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for records involving the long-awaited study. In response, Eric Wachter, an EPA official, wrote in a Sept. 11 letter that the agency was not "assessing the health effects" of tire crumbs. Instead, EPA is evaluating "monitoring methods" for testing those crumbs, the letter said.

PEER director Ruch said he was surprised. "EPA misled parents and the public into believing it was actually addressing potential toxic exposure risks to kids," he said.

Peter Grevatt, EPA's director of children's health protection and environmental education, said the agency was laying the groundwork for a possible in-depth study. "It's very important if we're going to draw conclusions," he said, to make sure the methods used to collect the data are "giving us accurate and reproducible results."

Suzanne Wuerthele, a retired toxicologist who worked in the EPA regional office in Denver for 23 years, said the EPA could move faster. She alerted the agency to tire-crumb concerns about two years ago.

"There is methodology they can use now. They can take the particles of respirable size and chemically analyze what's in them to see if they're safe," she said. This has been done for 20 years, she said.

In January 2008, the Denver regional office warned EPA headquarters that pulverized recycled tires may contain arsenic, cadmium, chromium, manganese, mercury, lead, benzene, latex, and other compounds. Some are carcinogenic and some can cause brain dysfunction.

In an internal memo obtained by PEER, Stephen Tuber, Denver's assistant regional administrator, cited "information suggesting that children's chronic, repeated exposure to tire crumb could present health hazards." He also warned that high levels of volatile chemicals had been discovered in indoor sports arenas with turf fields.

Tuber recommended that EPA pull its endorsement of fields and playgrounds with tire crumbs until answers are found.

Loose tire crumbs also are used as playground surfaces to cushion falls.

The EPA has taken the stand that recycling tires is a good way to keep them from landfills, where they can catch fire or become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Public clamor recently led New York City to abandon plans to buy more fields or playgrounds that contain pulverized tires.

School referendums to fund turf fields in Evesham and other towns have been defeated in the last three years, in part because of parental concerns about rubber crumbs. In Evesham, however, the town later took on the project and put the field in on its own property. Its $1.6 million field opened last month.

Nick Italiano, manager of the Evesham Recreation Department, said the only complaint he had gotten from parents is that the rubber pellets get inside kids' shoes. So many tiny pellets are infused between the blades of synthetic grass that they only need grooming, not replenishing, after a game, he said.

Around the country, synthetic fields and playgrounds are popular. More than 5,000 turf fields are now installed, according to the Synthetic Turf Council. Most of the fields built in the last few years in the region come with used-rubber cushioning.

The fields, which cost from $500,000 to more than $1,000,000, are in more than 50 school grounds and parks in the Philadelphia area, including locations in Medford, Marlton, Mount Laurel, Voorhees, Palmyra, Marlton, Moorestown, Pennsauken, Wissahickon, West Chester, Radnor, and Upper Dublin.

Indoor sports arenas with turf fields are also going up. In Mantua, Gloucester County, a private firm, Total Turf Experience, is building an indoor field with $5 million in federal stimulus money.

Murray, who has two children playing sports at Camden Catholic, said a few of the school's board members had expressed "some concern about the rubber particles."

Murray attended a Sprinturf seminar at the University of Pennsylvania where a scientist hired by the Wayne-based firm answered questions. Sprinturf also has installed one of its products on Penn's Franklin Field. Its hundreds of clients include Drexel and Temple Universities, Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, and the Eagles NovaCare Complex.

Sprinturf offered "overwhelming documentation" that the fields were safe, said Murray, a lacrosse coach and member of the Cherry Hill school's turf committee. It ended up endorsing a $650,000 rubber-backed, mint green field that was unveiled at an Oct. 3 football game.

A field with organic cushioning, like ground-up coconuts, is more costly, Murray said.

Amy Brackin, Sprinturf's marketing vice president, said that such alternatives boost the final price by roughly $250,000. She said the company also offers virgin rubber, not from recycled tires, that similarly raises the cost.

Radnor, for example, opted for coated rubber under its field, at a cost of about $20,000 more, she said.

Brackin says few customers have requested such alternatives. The company, she said, has "a high level of confidence" that all of its fields are safe. She also said she would welcome more testing from EPA.

But Wuerthele, the retired EPA toxicologist, says the agency may not take a hard look.

"I think a lot of people don't want to see a problem here," she said, explaining that she "met resistance" from managers when she voiced concerns. The agency could end up "telling people who spent a lot of money on this" that they may have to remove the fields and playgrounds or face litigation.

While the EPA report is unlikely to settle this issue even when it appears, companies are moving to revamp their products.

Brackin said that soon after New Jersey found lead in turf fibers, the company reduced the lead content in pigment found in its red, yellow, and brown fields from about 400 parts per million to fewer than one part per million.

Other companies are taking similar measures. The turf council reported that some fields contained lead at more than 3,000 parts per million, but its members have agreed to adopt a standard of 300 parts per million by next year. By 2012, the lead content will fall to 100 parts per million, which will comply with federal regulations on lead levels in toys.

PEER director Ruch suggests a similar approach could be taken with tire crumbs. In Europe, he said, regulations call for new tires to have no lead, which means the tire crumbs would end up being a little safer.

That, Ruch said, could be a start. But he's still waiting for a thorough EPA report on the turf's safety.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler
at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.