A former National Health Service chief on Monday night begged the Government to ban the construction of artificial pitches in the UK following the tragic death of his son whose cancer he fears was caused by playing on them.
Nigel Maguire spoke of his devastation on Monday at losing son Lewis just a month after the 20-year-old had declared he had won his four-year battle against Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
An aspiring goalkeeper who fell ill halfway through a trial at Leeds United in 2013, Lewis trained and played for five years on 3G pitches covered in rubber pellets made from old car tyres containing toxic chemicals mercury, lead, benzene and arsenic.
He would frequently swallow those pellets when diving for the ball or find them lodged in grazes, something he and his father – an ex-nurse who quit as chief executive of NHS Cumbria after Lewis was diagnosed – feared caused his cancer.
His father wrote to the Government more than a year ago urging it to order an “immediate moratorium” on the building of 3G crumb rubber pitches, while also lobbying the Football Association and Rugby Football Union to do the same.
Sports minister Tracey Crouch responded by stating studies had found no evidence such surfaces were unsafe but Maguire snr is adamant none of that research examined the effect of ingesting rubber pellets or them coming into contact with cuts and grazes.
He told the Daily Telegraph: “I’m not hysterical; I’m not somebody who says, ‘My son’s died and isn’t this terrible?’; I’m asking reasonable questions that nobody has the answers to.
“And in the absence of those answers, we need to have more research and take more precautions.”
As well as calling a temporary halt to what have become flagship construction projects for the FA and RFU in their efforts to get more people playing and reduce the number of fixtures postponed through bad weather, Maguire also urged the Government to issue guidelines restricting the time spent by goalkeepers training on 3G pitches and ensuring children shower immediately after playing on them.
He said he had been forced to put what had become a years-long campaign on hold when Lewis developed Guillain-Barré syndrome last year following an experimental course of chemotherapy, leaving him paralysed from the neck down.
“For the last six months, it’s just been absolute hell,” Maguire added. “He couldn’t walk by the end. Poor bugger. Six months of pure hell.”
Lewis, who received a video message of support from former Liverpool and England captain Steven Gerrard during his illness, was nevertheless discharged on Valentine’s Day following a bone marrow transplant that led him to proclaim on Twitter that he had beaten cancer for a third time following two previous relapses.
In a post that received more than 54,000 likes, he wrote: “On way home from hospital after easily the toughest 5 months of my life, but that’s my bone marrow done and I’ve f---ing smashed cancer all over, AGAIN! Lewis 3-0 Cancer.”
But Lewis, first diagnosed after discovering a lump on his neck while watching television, had tragically contracted the deadly superbug Clostridium difficile.
“I was driving him home when he did that tweet saying he’d got the all clear,” Maguire said.
“And then, sadly, he got a C-dif infection and went straight back into hospital and never came out. Intensive care for two weeks and that was it. Gone.
“Devastating, really. Just unimaginable. It’s just not the way it’s meant to be, is it? He had so much life in him.”
Maguire revealed he planned to step up his campaign against 3G by writing again to the Government – this time targeting the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – saying he owed it to his son to keep fighting.
“I owe it to his memory because he was the one that raised it,” he said. “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t this anxious parent who wanted to find a cause for his illness.
“It was him asking the questions and I helped him ask the questions; that’s all I did.”
Citing data showing of athletes with cancer to have played on pitches covered in crumb rubber, almost half had been goalkeepers, Maguire claimed experts had told him it would take “decades” to compile a sample large enough to prove or disprove such a link.
But he added: “You just need to take ‘the precautionary principle’, which is, ‘Is it common sense for people to be playing on shredded car tyres when we know they contain all these toxins and carcinogens?’
“And my answer is, ‘No; it doesn’t make sense, actually. And, so, why take that risk?’
“Because, despite the fact that people say, ‘Everything’s safe and all the evidence says it’s safe,’ it’s categorically untrue.
“An absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.”