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The Irony of Health Care Facilities with Coal Tar Parking Lots

From the Springfield News Leader: Chiles back to put spotlight on coal tar sealant Written by Thomas Gounley Sep. 1, 2013 Since being diag...

From the Springfield News Leader:

Chiles back to put spotlight on coal tar sealant
Written by Thomas Gounley Sep. 1, 2013

Since being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, Dan Chiles has visited CoxHealth facilities numerous times for appointments with radiologists, urologists and other specialists. 

Today, things are under control, but he still has occasional appointments to ensure they’re staying that way. On those days, he drives from his home in western Greene County, finds a parking spot, turns off the ignition and opens the door of his gray Toyota pickup. 

Then, to get to his appointment, Chiles walks across a parking lot the hospital chain has treated with coal tar sealant — the same product that manufacturers acknowledge contains materials classified as a human carcinogen, or cancer-causing agent. 

“This whole story is full of irony,” he said in a recent interview. 

Three years after a year-long debate in city government, and 10 months after the release of a local taxpayer-funded study that found toxic sediment samples in nearby waterways, the use of coal tar sealants on parking lots in Springfield is an issue that has fallen from the spotlight. Industry representatives continue to maintain that the sealant is safe for use, and the owners of large lots using the sealant say their decision is based on performance. 

Now, Chiles, who served on City Council from 2007 to 2011, is adopting a more alarmist tone than past debates as he emerges as the main force attempting to get the subject back in public consciousness. 

On Aug. 12, for example, Chiles sent an email to CoxHealth CEO and President Steve Edwards and several hospital board members, along with a News-Leader editor, with the subject line “Your amazing breach of medical ethics.” 

“I deeply resent being asked to walk through Group One Human Carcinogens to get to my appointment,” he wrote. 

At issue is the fact that coal tar sealants contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are classified as a carcinogen. While PAHs occur naturally in the environment, they are found in high levels in the sealants, and as the sealant degrades, studies have shown, they can make their way into nearby waterways. 

Edwards forwarded the email to Rod Schaffer, the hospital’s vice president of facilities. Board Member J. Howard Fisk responded by saying Chiles’ tactics caused him to lose credibility with him. “Mr. Chiles has made a point of attempting to insult and demean his friends and associates into adopting this study for some time,” Fisk wrote. “It has been my opinion that if the toxic nature of these substances was significant that a national ban would be in place.” 

On Aug. 14, Chiles sent the same group another email. 

“Fish hooks are legal,” he began. “Would you buy thousands of them and spread them all over your parking lots? Even if they were cheap and shiny and everyone was doing it, would you spread fish hooks all over your parking lots?” 

Fisk’s response was more curt. “Good afternoon,” he wrote. “When did the Environmental Protection Agency ban on coal tar based substances go into effect?” 

The emails aren’t personal — Chiles considers the recipients his friends — but something needs to be done, he said. 

CoxHealth, which has experimented with alternatives to coal tar sealant in the past, said in a statement it is following a widespread practice that abides by current regulations. 

“We use sealants that are used nearly exclusively throughout the Midwest, and we adhere to guidance from the Department of Natural Resources, and other state and federal regulatory agencies, in their use,” the statement provided by Media Relations Coordinator Stacy Fender reads. “If these rules and regulations change, we will abide by those new guidelines.” 

Three years after a city debate 

Springfield’s Environmental Advisory Board recommended a ban on coal tar sealant in December 2009; the issue was bounced around for 12 months as scientists and industry representatives paid visits to the city. By December 2010, the idea of a city-wide ban was rejected, although the city itself decided to stop using it on its parking lots. City Council also called for testing of local waterways and urged increased monitoring by state and federal authorities. 

Austin became the first city in the nation to ban coal tar sealants in 2006, and a handful of municipalities had followed suit by the time of Springfield’s debate. In 2010, many opponents of a ban in Springfield noted there was no national ban on the substance — something they felt would be in place if the substance truly should be avoided. 

Three years later, there is still no national ban, although an increasing number of municipalities around the country have instituted their own. Washington became the first state to ban it in 2011, and Minnesota passed a ban this spring that will go into effect Jan. 1. Lowe’s and Home Depot don’t stock the sealant. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that material safety data sheets be made available to employees who handle potentially harmful substances while at work. The documents break down toxicological information and detail what to do if a fire breaks out, among other things. Neyra Industries, one producer of coal tar sealant, has its material safety data sheet posted on its website.

Under “Chronic Effects,” the document reads: “IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] classified coal tar pitch as a Class 1 Human Carcinogen.” Workers whose skin comes in contact with the sealant are advised: “Wash off immediately with soap and plenty of water. If symptoms persist, call a physician.” In the event of accidental release, workers are told to “evacuate personnel to safe areas.” 

Again, Chiles uses the word “ironic.” “The people that make it say don’t touch it, don’t breathe it, don’t use it, don’t put it in the environment, don’t let it get into the waterways,” Chiles said. 

City's major players continue to use sealant 

Throughout the 2010 debate, Chiles was a clear supporter of a city-wide ban. He listed its defeat as one of his biggest regrets when leaving office, but he didn’t get consumed by the subject until recently, when something made him decide to speak up. 

Two months ago, he said, he and former Greene County Commissioner Dave Coonrod were driving to the recycling center when they saw workers spraying something on a lot at Ozarks Technical Community College. 

What were they spraying, he asked? It’s a coal tar sealant, the workers told him. “And I said, ‘No, this can’t be.’ ” 

In May 2010, during a presentation to City Council by OTC Vice President of Administrative Services Rob Rector on the college’s plans for growth, Chiles asked Rector whether the college’s parking lots would use coal tar sealant, according to News-Leader coverage at the time. 

OTC had “no intentions of using coal tar,” Rector replied. One day later, a Springfield resident saw a crew applying coal tar sealant to an OTC lot. Rector chalked it up to a misunderstanding and said he would put a stop to it. 

Ozarks Technical Community College spokesman Joel Doepker told the News-Leader last month that the college was using coal tar sealant again, having had poor results with an asphalt alternative — an argument that had also been voiced by ban opponents in 2010. 

“It didn’t adhere to the lot,” he said. “It tracked through our hallways and it tracked all across our property.” Rod Schaffer, CoxHealth’s vice president of facilities, said he would consider switching to asphalt, but only if he saw significant improvement. “It works elsewhere in the country, but not in the south and here,” he said. “We wish it would work. And if there’s a product out there that works, we would be happy to try it.” 

Seeing it being applied at OTC two months ago, Chiles said, prompted a “sickening realization.” “We’re going backwards.” 

Local study finds toxic sediments in area 

Chiles said he “reluctantly” agreed to testing of local waterways in 2010. He felt testing was just an effort to put off an actual decision, he said, but he figured it would be hard to argue against more scientific research. 

Missouri State University’s Robert Pavlowsky released his final report called “Baseline Study of PAH Sources and Concentrations in Pond and Stream Sediments, Springfield, Missouri” in October 2012. The total cost of the study was $36,750, according to city of Springfield spokeswoman Cora Scott. 

The goal of the study, according to its executive summary, was to answer the following question: “Are PAHs found in urban stream and pond sediments at concentrations high enough to raise environmental concerns, and if so, to what degree are coal-tar sealants the source of PAH contamination?” 

Seventy-two sediment samples were collected at 58 different sites. Forty-one sites were located within Springfield city limits. Nine sites were located in urban and suburban areas of Greene County. Eight sites were in rural areas in Christian and Stone counties, to act as a control for comparison. 

“When we look at (the samples), 46 percent them are in the toxic range, 42 percent are borderline and only 12 percent are non-toxic,” Pavlowsky, who is director of the Ozarks Environmental and Water Resources Institute at MSU, said in November. 

And the report linked those toxic samples to the sealants used on nearby parking lots, while citing a 2009 industry survey conducted by the city that found that more than 90 percent of sealants used in Springfield are coal tar-based. 

“Large commercial and residential parking lots are a major source of PAHs to streams and ponds in Springfield,” the report reads. “Sealed parking lots release pavement dusts and other PAH contaminated sediment particles at concentrations almost two orders of magnitude higher compared to unsealed asphalt and concrete parking lots.” 

In the recent email exchanges initiated by Chiles, Fisk asked for more information on the study. 

“I previously asked for the credentials of the team that conducted the MSU study and what they were tasked to accomplish as a result of the study,” he wrote. “That information has yet to be provided.”

According to Ozarks Environmental and Water Resources Institute’s website, Pavlowsky holds a doctorate in the areas of fluvial geomorphology, environmental geochemistry and water quality. He has been director of the institute since 2005. 

“I think that a review of the studies out there shows that there is little doubt within the environmental science field that coal-tar sealants represent a distinct source of potentially toxic levels of PAHs to streams and lakes in many urban areas,” Pavlowsky wrote in an email last month. 

Speaking generally, however, Anne LeHurray, executive director of the Virginia-based Pavement Coatings Technology Council, told USA Today in June that recent studies portraying coal tar sealant in a bad light were “controversial science.” 

“Sealers are manufactured with high quality ingredients in strict accordance with all federal, state and requirements,” the organization’s website reads. “Air sampling studies showed refined coal tar based sealers pose no inhalation risk to applicators, manufacturers or the general public.” 

More than three years after they were written, the Pavement Coatings Technology Council links to two letters written by Springfield architect Geoffrey Butler on its homepage — a testament to the role the city has played in the still-evolving debate on the substance. 

“I have only used an asphalt based sealer once,” Butler wrote to Springfield City Council in January 2010. “That was not a very good experience. It tracked terribly and we, as the landlord, had to spend thousands of dollars cleaning up the carpets of our tenants.” 

Moving forward 

While Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky expressed interest in pushing for restrictions after Pavlowsky presented the results of his study in November, there has been no formal action 10 months later. 

“As far as I know, there does not appear to be any discussions in the works,” spokeswoman Cora Scott said on Friday. 

Chiles — who believes that sealants are only cosmetic and don’t extend the life of or protect parking lots — thinks the study answered the questions that many felt were unresolved in 2010. 

“I guess we all thought that something would come from it — that the city would reopen the hearings, there would be more interest in it … but no,” he said. “I mean, especially in light of the findings of the study, because the findings of the study are dramatic.” 

He said he believes the fact that many of the city’s largest employers use coal tar sealants has kept more people from speaking out about the “poison.” 

“That inherent conflict of interest has made it so different to get involved,” he said. 

If the support for a city-wide ban still isn’t there, Chiles said, he could support an approach that takes into account what he estimates will be inevitable — and astronomical — future clean-up costs. 

“We put a tax or a fee on every barrel of this toxic waste that comes into Springfield, and we say, ‘This barrel now has to pay its own way’ … that’s not a ban; we’re not saying people can’t use it,” he said. 

For now, however, Chiles says he’ll continue to “turn up the public attention on the matter.” “You are spreading large volumes of these known cancer causing agents on the parking lots of a hospital,” he wrote in an email to Schaffer on Aug. 14. “If you were operating a hog butchering plant, then I might understand. But a hospital? Serving cancer patients?


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Coal Tar Free America: The Irony of Health Care Facilities with Coal Tar Parking Lots
The Irony of Health Care Facilities with Coal Tar Parking Lots
Coal Tar Free America
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