toxic

Robert McClure's picture

New studies: Toxic asphalt sealants threaten kids, cause air pollution

When you think of pollution, you might picture an industrial center like Camden, N.J., or Jersey City. But new research shows that when it comes to a potent class of cancer-causing toxic chemicals, many American parking lots are a lot worse.

New studies paint an increasingly alarming picture – particularly for young children – about how these chemicals are being spread across big swaths of American cities and suburbs by what may seem an unlikely source – a type of asphalt sealer. These sealants are derived from an industrial waste, coal tar.

Four new studies announced this week further implicate coal tar-based asphalt sealants as likely health risks.  The creosote-like material typically is sprayed onto parking lots and driveways in an effort to preserve the asphalt. It also gives the pavement a dark black coloring that many people find attractive.

Coal tar is a byproduct of the steelmaking industry. In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared that it would not be classified as a hazardous waste, even though it met the characteristics of one, because it could be recycled for uses including coating asphalt. That meant steel mills didn’t have to pay for costly landfilling or incineration of the waste.

 Only in recent years have scientists discovered the ill effects of this practice.

Coal tar sealants are used most heavily in the eastern United States, but have been used in all 50 states until Washington State banned the products last year as a result of reporting by InvestigateWest. More than a dozen local governments, including Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, also have banned the coal tar sealants in favor of the other major type of sealant, which is asphalt-based.

Byline: 
Carol Smith's picture

Learning from the Duwamish River Communities

Seattle is a city built on water – its identity, its celebrated beauty, and much of its economic lifeblood comes from its relationship to Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.

But the Duwamish River, which runs through the center of Seattle’s urban industrial core, is not the one you see on post cards. Now named one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, it is also the river in the backyard of more than 38,000 of Seattle’s poorest and most diverse residents.

The goal of my 2010 National Health Fellowship project was to identify the community health issues that face the people living in two neighborhoods – Georgetown and South Park -- which face each other across the toxic river in the middle of the Superfund site. 

The thinking was that by identifying these problems, we could call out the issue of accountability, and more importantly point the way toward creative solutions for a portion of the population the greater Seattle community has historically ignored. The backdrop for the story was a looming multi-million dollar Superfund decision about how best to clean up the river, and to what extent.

The precipitating event for the story, though, was the closure of the bridge that links the two communities, effectively cutting off easy access to downtown Seattle a few miles away. To me it seemed the perfect metaphor for the attitude of the larger population toward those struggling to carve a life on the banks of the river that built the prosperous city down the road.

Byline: 

Toxic acid puts millions at risk

SEE ALSO:

CPI's national look at the danger

ConocoPhillips refinery's record in Washington

How Tesoro's Anacortes refinery embodies slipping safety culture of oil industry

How journalists collaborated to bring you this story

For 170,000 people living in and around Bellingham, it’s a distinctly chilling scenario: Something goes horribly wrong at the ConocoPhillips’ refinery near Ferndale and over the next 10 minutes 110,000 pounds of hydrofluoric acid explodes into a cloud that goes on to burn the lungs of whole neighborhoods or towns, causing widespread shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain and possibly even death.

The ConocoPhillips refinery is the only refinery in Washington using a chemical known as hydrofluoric acid, described by federal health officials as a “highly corrosive . . . serious systemic poison.” The stuff is so toxic that it can harm people up to 14 miles downwind, government records show.  

“You mean the most deadly chemical ever invented?” asked environmental activist Denny Larson of Global Community Monitor. “I’ve worked on refinery issues for 25 years. This has been a major issue for at least that long because it is known as one of the most deadly chemicals ever invented.”

Confirms Mark MacIntyre, spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle:  “It’s horrible stuff. It’s some of the worst stuff in the spill-response world.”

Those roses you just bought seem to be causing "silent pandemic" of learning deficits among pesticide-exposed kids

The science journal’s wording is antiseptic. And yet the underlying story is heart-rending: Children exposed to pesticides in the womb while their mothers raise flowers for export to the American market are turning up later with learning difficulties. And then finally the authors leave the medical talk behind and warn of a “silent pandemic.”

Here’s a key passage:

"Only children with prenatal exposure from maternal greenhouse work showed consistent deficits after covariate adjustment, which included stunting and socioeconomic variables. Exposure-related deficits were the strongest for motor speed… motor coordination… visuospatial performance… and visual memory. These associations corresponded to a developmental delay of 1.5-2 years."

Whoa! So because of our need for pretty flowers, a 6-year-old Ecuadorian kid might have the motor skills of a 4-year-old! The new study in Environmental Health Perspectives notes that the impacts – which included slightly raising the exposed kids’ blood pressure, as well – are present even though the pesticides didn’t hurt the mothers.

Lots of the flowers Americans buy are from Ecuador, especially roses, with only Colombia outpacing Ecuador in selling roses to the United States. (And I'm not guessing there are very heavy restrictions on pesticide use there, either.)

The whole study hasn’t been posted yet, but the abstract gives the relevant details: 84 kids in an Ecuadorian village that raises lots of flowers were tested for pesticides. And their parents were interviewed about their exposure to pesticides. The results: