Baseball is a quintessential American sport. The sport goes back to 1869, when the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, was formed. Millions of kids play baseball, and attendance at Major League Baseball games tops 74 million people each year. This popular summer sport evokes feelings of Americana, nostalgia and happy times.
Injuries are also unfortunately part and parcel of the baseball experience. Players run the risk of being hit by the ball, a stray or splintered bat, or another player. They can run into walls and tumble over fences and barricades. These accidents can cause injuries to the head and musculoskeletal system.
Baseball players are at risk for other less-obvious injuries and illnesses. The recent ejection of New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda for using pine tar got us thinking - is pine tar hazardous to your health? What else do baseball players do or use that could harm them?
Pine tar is made when pine wood and roots are heated at very high temperatures in a process known as carbonization. The chemical composition of pine tar depends on the way that it is carbonized and other factors such as the age of the wood and the growing conditions that the wood was subjected to. Creosote is one of the common potential contaminants in pine tar.
Creosote is a term used to classify a group of compounds that are derived from various sources, including the creosote bush, different wood types (including pine), and coal. The chemical composition of creosote varies, given these diverse origins. This in turn makes a precise listing of the health effects of pine tar creosote difficult.
At a minimum, creosotes are known to irritate the skin and cause it to become dry, itchy, or reddish. In addition, experimental animals that were exposed to wood creosotes developed kidney and liver problems. This finding, while not directly applicable to humans, suggests that additional studies are needed in order to understand the harmful effects of creosote on humans. Players and other people who use pine tar should make sure that their product is creosote-free.
One last point about pine tar - this sticky material is difficult to remove from the skin. Harsh liquids such as rubbing alcohol, mineral spirits, or gasoline are often suggested as removal agents. These liquids can irritate the skin, and some of them may cause other, more serious health effects. Fortunately, less toxic substances such as olive oil, mayonnaise, and peanut butter can also remove pine tar from skin.
Does your favorite baseball player use chewing tobacco? Players who chew or dip increase their risk of experiencing serious health problems. For example, prolonged contact of tobacco with the mouth lining causes sores and white patches called leukoplakia to form. These lesions are often precursors of mouth cancer.
Nicotine and other ingredients in chew tobacco are absorbed into the body through the lining of the mouth. Nicotine exposures can increase the heart rate and blood pressure. It can also cause muscle tremors, nausea, and headaches.
Chewing tobacco also contains nitrosamines. These compounds are also found in cured meats, beer, and other foods that contain nitrites. They are known to cause cancer in experimental animals and there is strong evidence that they also cause cancer in humans. Players who chew have an increased risk of cancer of the throat, esophagus, stomach, and pancreas.
Does your favorite player take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs? If he is, any gains he sees on the field will be off-set by a long list of potential health problems. While minor signs and symptoms such as acne and excessive hair growth can be tolerated, more serious health effects such as heart and liver disease, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of cancer can't be ignored. In addition, steroid users often experience negative personality changes such as irritability and aggression.
Steroids are even blamed for the increased amount of baseball injuries and increased times that players spend on the disabled list. The reason is that while steroids increase muscle mass, they do not strengthen the accompanying ligaments and tendons. This sets the stage for the ligaments and tendons to strain - and possibly inflame, tear, or rupture.
Baseball, like any other endeavor, has both benefits and risks. Now that the long winter is over and a new baseball season has begun, let's get outside and play a game or cheer on our favorite team. Here's hoping that all baseball players - from the youngest t-ball players to the most experienced professionals - stay safe and healthy!