chemicals

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: 

Intern reporter confronted by ConocoPhillips security in reporting hydrofluoric acid story

Internships at InvestigateWest are not the coffee-fetching, errand-running type. In fact, as an intern, I recently learned that you may even be confused with a threat to homeland security.

As an InvestigateWest intern living in Bellingham, I was the natural choice for the Seattle-based news agency to visit the ConocoPhillips refinery near Bellingham to gather descriptive color and take photos from outside the facility’s fence. The story was about the refinery’s use of hydrofluoric acid, which has the potential to harm thousands of people if it leaks. IWest environment correspondent Robert McClure warned me that, because of a post-9/11 crackdown on anyone taking pictures near refineries, dams, bridges and other potential targets of terrorists, I might be questioned at the refinery. I understood this could be a possibility, but thought the workers there would most likely not acknowledge me. Turns out, Robert was right.

When I first arrived, I drove around to one of the far corners – making observations and jotting down notes along the way. After I had written down a thorough description, I stepped out of my truck and started taking photos of the refinery. Soon after my first pictures, a white Ford Escape quickly appeared. A security guard hopped out and said, “You aren’t allowed to take pictures here, it’s a federal offense.”

I told him I was on a public street and have a right to take pictures from where I was. He repeated himself and radioed the make, model and license plate number of my truck. A woman’s voice responded, “Is he still taking pictures?” I was. The guard said the refinery manager was coming out to speak to me and that they would call the sheriff and confiscate my pictures. Within a minute or two, two men arrived in a white Saturn. They asked me what I was doing and I explained.

Byline: 

Enviros urge last-minute calls to legislators to pass stormwater-cleanup bill; oil, agriculture interests opposed, with lawsuit threatened

Some interesting twists are developing in environmentalists’ campaign to convince the Washington Legislature to pass a tax on hazardous chemicals and petroleum products to clean up the No. 1 pollution source of Puget Sound, stormwater. Enviros say they need a flood of last-minute calls from constituents to prod legislators into action before they adjourn their annual session in Olympia Thursday night.

While Puget Sound is the focus of the debate, stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution for many waterbodies nationwide, if the truth be told. That's one reason the machinations in Olympia are interesting – they may presage similar fights elsewhere in the future.

On one side are the enviros, city and county governments, labor, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. Sounds formidable, eh? On the other side are the oil industry, farm groups, and possibly other opponents I haven’t learned about yet.

Not long ago I brought up how this bill to boost the tax on petroleum, fertilizer, pesticides and other hazardous substances was a bit of a pig in a poke. Collecting $225 million a year in the name of cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies, the legislation (HB 3181 and SB 6851) would have funneled more than two-thirds of the revenue straight to the state’s general fund in the first year.

Environmental regulator tells Congress: U.S. efforts to regulate toxics are a failure

It’s been more than 30 years since Congress passed a law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. It hasn’t controlled many toxics, though. And today a high-ranking environmental regulator from the Pacific Northwest told members of Congress that the nation’s efforts to keep people safe from harmful chemicals just aren’t cutting it.

Ted Sturdevant, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, rattled off a list of steps taken to control toxics in his state, including banning the flame retardant decaBDE and work to rein in mercury and lead. In fact, Washington was the first state to come up with multi-year plan to phase out so-called “persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic” chemicals, or PBTs, he told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

But Sturdevant’s testimony at the Congressional hearing quickly jumps to this point:

The truth is that our approach to protecting people and our environment from toxic chemicals is a failure. It’s a failure at the state level, and it’s a failure at the national level. We are failing to prevent avoidable harm to our children, we are failing to protect the food chain that sustains us, we are failing to save countless millions of taxpayer dollars that are wasted on health care costs and environmental cleanup, and we are failing to exercise common sense.

Wow. Strong words. He went on to describe what he thinks a common-sense system of regulations would entail:

• Look carefully at a chemical’s potential to harm before it is used in commerce.

• The government should be able to ban a chemical causing an “urgent and unacceptable” risk.

Intersex fish found across U.S. - which chemicals to blame?

The U.S. Geological Survey just completed a nine-year study in streams and rivers across the U.S. looking for intersex fish - males with female characteristics, like production of eggs, according toAlaska Dispatch. Largemouth and smallmouth bass were most affected, with 33 percent and 18 percent being intersex across the country, respectively. The full reportby Christopher Joyce is on NPR's All Things Considered.

Intersex fish aren't a new phenomenon, but this the largest study of its kind to be conducted in U.S. waters, according to the article. Scientists blame industrial and pharmaceutical chemicals, as well as personal care products like deodorant, cosmetics and shampoo. Many of these chemicals are "endocrine disruptors" that affect an individual's delicate hormone system.

We don't yet know if these chemicals are affecting humans. Many products containing them are not labeledin the United States, according to Samuel S. Epstein in the Huffington Post. It's difficult to isolate what is affecting other animals, since multiple chemicals could be mixing to form chemical cocktails.

The effects aren't restricted to fish. A resident in Montana has been tracking mutated jaws and genitals in deer and other animals for more than 13 years.