Scrap Tire Playgrounds Lighten Landfills, But Raise Cancer Fears

crumb rubber

The fire burned for nine months, billowing toxic black smoke thousands of feet above its Appalachian valley source and across five states. It would take 20 years and $12 million to clean up the remains of the tire heap.

At the time of the 1983 Rhinehart, Virginia, tire fire, about 90 percent of America’s discarded tires went to landfills. There, they would take up massive amounts of space, occasionally ignite, and collect water that created fertile breeding grounds for disease-transmitting mosquitoes. Today, in part because of actions sparked by the Virginia disaster and many smaller tire fires, more than 90 percent of the nation’s approximately 230 million tires scrapped each year are put to use — burned as fuel, incorporated into asphalt roads and, increasingly, shredded into components of products such as synthetic turf sports fields and children’s playgrounds.

Industry leaders tout this as a win-win for businesses and the planet. But others say we’ve simply swapped one bad set of environmental health risks for another. And these critics highlight moves by industry and government to promote lucrative landfill diversions, such as ground-up tires — so-called crumb rubber — despite acknowledging hazards.

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