A City scientist collects a sample of paving sealant from a parking lot in Southwest Travis County. Tests showed it was not coal tar, which has a blacker, shinier look than the grey surface above.
by Tony Tucci
Cancer-causing coal tar sealants were removed from the playgrounds at seven elementary schools this summer in time for the school year to begin.
The playgrounds were given a priority because children are the most vulnerable to the effects of coal tar sealants, which contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) known to cause cancer.
The seven elementary schools remediated this summer are Doss, Linder, Pleasant Hill, Campbell, Hart, Summit and Williams. However, coal tar still remains on parking lots at 28 facilities. “The school district does not yet have a schedule for remediating the coal tar sealer on the parking lots, but will be doing so soon,” said Curt Shaw, director of AISD’s
Construction Management Department.
AISD originally had identified 60 facilities with coal tar but further tests reduced that number to 28, Shaw said. The facilities are Anderson, Austin, Bowie, Garza, McCallum, and Reagan high schools; Burnet, Covington, Fulmore, Kealing, Martin, Murchison, and O.Henry middleschools; and Andrews, Barton Hills, Cook, Cunningham, Dawson, Galindo, Joslin, Linder, Pecan Springs, Read, Summitt, Walnut Creek, Widen, and Wooten elementary schools, plus the Lance Giles Service Center.
“The parking lots with the highest percentage of coal tar sealer would be considered for remediation first,” said Shaw. “The department’s annual maintenance and operations budget would likely fund some of the initial work, until more remediation could be performed through a future voter-approved school bond program.”
Shaw said AISD recently appointed a citizens committee to begin evaluating the district’s facility needs to help the board of trustees determine those projects that should be included in a future bond program, and when such a bond election should take place. A Pavement Management Plan is in final review, and should be completed by the end of this month, Shaw said.
Coal tar is easily identified by its shiny black appearance, whereas asphalt grays as it ages. It has been banned by the city of Austin since 2006, but thousands of paved surfaces sealed before that date remain. AISD has taken the lead in removing old coal tar.
Coal tar becomes more dangerous as it ages. It flakes and turns to dust and is blown into the air we breathe, washed into our waterways, and tracked on shoes into homes and cars.
“Coal tar needs to be banned, and we feel strongly that we need to do our part,” said Shaw. Parents, teachers and students who come in contact with coal tar need to take certain precautions, according to a brochure issued by the city’s Watershed Protection Department. This includes washing hands and faces before eating or dinking and damp-mopping floors.
The Oak Hill Gazette has been reporting on the dangers of coal tar since 2009. No other local newspaper has carried the story, although the issue has made headlines in various cities, including Chicago and Washington, D.C. One local television station began filing reports this year.
About two-dozen cities and the state of Washington have followed Austin’s lead in banning the substance, and both Lowe’s and Home Depot have pulled it from their shelves. A national ban also is being considered.
Evidence of the danger of coal tar becomes more conclusive as studies continue. Dr. E. Spencer Williams, a human health risk assessment expert from Baylor University, said the probable risk to children exposed to coal tar soil and dust exceeds 1 in 10,000. According to federal law, that risk is “unacceptable” and is “sufficient basis” for action.
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