During the weeks that Poolesville High School has been under construction, several students have reported nausea, headaches and difficulty concentrating.
Krisna Becker, a parent of two at the school, said one of her daughters texted her on Feb. 14 asking to be picked up early because of how strong the fumes were from the construction work. Other students and teachers had also been complaining that morning. The school ended up releasing early that day because of an odor that came from “work done outside of school hours and windy conditions,” Montgomery County Public Schools spokeswoman Jessica Baxter said.
“That was the first extreme event that happened,” Becker, 49, said in an interview. Since then, the potency of the “fumes” has varied, but “some days it’s really extreme” and even on the days it’s not, “it still causes headaches,” she said.
Construction at Poolesville High began in June 2022 and is expected to be completed in 2024. The project will renovate and expand the square footage of the school.
Becker has headed up a campaign urging other parents to advocate for a temporary stop to the tar work. She wrote about the effects the fumes have had on her daughters, who stay after school sometimes to rehearse for the school’s production of “Into the Woods.” In her letter to the other parents, Becker also listed safety concerns. In one example, she wrote the project’s chemical list and material data notes that the work includes the use of an asphalt primer and advises: “Avoid prolonged breathing of vapor and use only in adequate ventilation. Repeated and prolonged overexposure to solvent vapor may cause brain and nervous system damage, respiratory tract irritation, dizziness, or loss of consciousness.” Becker wrote that parents and teachers should have been told about potential health risks in advance.
Montgomery County schools said it and its contractors follow all federal and state laws. “Safety is the top priority for our school system when constructing and renovating buildings,” Baxter said.
School officials have tried to reserve tarring for times when students aren’t in classrooms — like after school or over the weekends, Baxter said. The construction team checks the forecast and wind conditions each day to evaluate the work day, but the tar has to heat up during the school day to get evening work done.
In a letter last week, Seth Adams, the school system’s facilities management director, wrote to Poolesville parents that additional measures were being put in place, including redirecting students to different entrances away from the work and placing temporary seals around doors and windows that face the construction zone. The school system has also placed activated charcoal filters designed to trap gases on the mechanical equipment.
“I think the list of exposure-reducing activities is a good list,” said Patricia Fabian, an associate professor of environmental health at Boston University, but the effectiveness is “hard to know unless you’re measuring.” Sometimes, it can take days for fumes to dry out, and students can still be exposed to some emissions, Fabian said.
However, those mitigation tactics haven’t worked, particularly for students in the theater program who stay after school for rehearsals when construction work is being done, Becker said. Plus, the tar being heated up during the school day is still causing symptoms, she added.
This week, the school system announced it was pausing roofing activities until after a spring musical performance at the school.
“This decision was not made due to safety concerns, but for concerns that construction activities may impact the overall attendance of the event,” Baxter said in an email. “Students have been preparing for this event, and the decision was made to support their hard work.”