OTTAWA, Ontario – These are the days when the Women's World Cup becomes truly grueling. Fewer days off, better opponents, more pressure. And a persistent obstacle the men never have to face – the artificial turf.
"I have plenty of blisters on my toes," United States forward Alex Morgan said with a resigned smile on Thursday.
That's not a good thing for any player, let alone a star on the mend from knee and ankle ailments. "Turf achiness takes a little longer to recover from," Morgan said.
Michelle Heyman of Australia was even more blunt: "You wouldn't want to see the bottom of our feet after a game," she told one Australian newspaper. "They just turn white. The skin is all ripped off; it's pretty disgusting. It's like walking on hot coals with your skin ripping and slowly cracking, constantly."
Sweden's Nilla Fischer told Yahoo Sports the blisters were such a constant concern during the group stage that some of her teammates started taping up every single toe before going out onto the field.
Sweden has been eliminated, but the Americans continue on, with only three rest days this week between Monday's round-of-16 victory over Colombia and Friday's quarterfinal against China. With the turf trapping the summer heat, practices and matches can both get even more draining. Field temperatures in Edmonton for an earlier match soared as high as 120 degrees, even though the air temperature was in the low 70s. This weekend's forecast for the Australians' match with Japan is calling for a high around 90. One UNLV study found synthetic turf can heat up to 170 degrees in summer months. That poses risks ranging from dehydration to heat illness.
Then there is the possibility of faster collisions with other players, and with the ground. Jeffrey Kutcher, one of the world's leading sports neurologists, told Yahoo Sports that studies of turf vs. grass haven't been conclusive in his field, but "I would still stand behind the concept that grass is likely safer from a concussion standpoint."
All of this is why American Abby Wambach led a lawsuit against FIFA last year, hoping to force this tournament to be played on grass. Turf is not a natural setting for the ball, for the players or for the game, and it's hard to imagine the men being asked to play on turf in any World Cup.
And it's not just an issue for this tournament. Artificial turf is used for playgrounds all over the continent, and battles are taking place over whether children are safe being exposed to the crushed tire rubber that makes up the turf. A Stockholm University study from 2012 found "automobile tires may be a potential source of highly carcinogenic dibenzopyrenes to the environment."
"It's a serious, serious problem," says Nancy Alderman, president of the Environment and Human Health, Inc. (EHHI), an organization of physicians and public health professionals. "We are concerned about the health of a whole generation now who are playing on these fields."
Research on the topic is not advanced enough to conclusively determine safety hazards, but anecdotal evidence has hit close to home for the U.S. team. Amy Griffin, assistant coach at the University of Washington and former mentor to Hope Solo, has compiled a list of 153 student-athletes, the majority of them soccer goalkeepers, who have been diagnosed with cancer over the last several years. She has sent her research to the Washington State Department of Health.
"I never said this is giving people cancer," Griffin said by phone. "But if you were me, and you saw the number of goalkeepers [with cancer] was so high, you'd be alarmed.
"The more I know about tires, the more I think, 'What the heck? What are we doing?' " Griffin said. "In large form it's hazardous waste, and in crumb form it's OK for kids?"
The EHHI has been studying this issue at Yale University, and it released a statement earlier this month revealing it has found 96 chemicals in the materials used for synthetic turf.
"Of the 96 chemicals detected," the statement read, "a little under a half have had no toxicity assessments done on them for their health effects. … Of the half that have had toxicity assessments, 20 percent are probable carcinogens."
The lead investigator on the study, Yale University professor Gabdoury Benoit, called the rubber infill "a witch's brew of toxic substances. It seems irresponsible to market a hazardous waste as a consumer product."
FieldTurf, the company that provided the playing surface for three of the World Cup stadiums in Canada, wrote in an email to Yahoo Sports stating that "Scientific research from academic, federal and state government organizations has unequivocally failed to find any link between synthetic turf and cancer. We are committed as a company and as an industry to the safety of our fields and the athletes that compete on them – which is why we have encouraged the rigorous work from third-parties that has taken place over decades to confirm there are no negative health effects connected to synthetic turf." The company also forwarded an array of documents supporting its case.
The lack of proof of causality is not soothing to some experts, however. "Cancer is a 30- or 40-year process," Yale oncologist Barry Boyd said. "So long-term exposure may not show up until years later."
Part of the uncertainty is the extent of a player's exposure to the crumb rubber. The preponderance of goalies in Griffin's research is troubling, as those players are interacting more with the turf by repeatedly diving onto the ground. But American players here have said they have found the pellets all over their body even after post-match showers. "Anywhere and everywhere," defender Lori Chalupny said. If the pellets do have toxic characteristics – especially under extreme heat – the proximity of athletes to those characteristics is there after games.
Players are trying to put their turf concerns aside while they try to win a world championship, but their lawsuit against FIFA, dropped because there wasn't enough time to win a decision before the tournament, was hardly frivolous. The scraping of legs and knees on the turf can open up cuts and wounds that are at risk of infection, and the harder surface may make players more susceptible to foot and ankle injuries.
There have been no major turf-related injuries during the Women's World Cup so far. But the effects of the playing surface may be cumulative and more taxing as the championship match draws near.
"It may not show up in the first game," Griffin said, "but by the last game it may end up making the difference."