Air district investigates roof-tarring project after residents say they got sick
Shelby Rodriguez, her husband, John, and their young daughter moved into a rental house this past June. This was after John lost his job, then found a new one as a home-loan broker—right before the housing crisis hit.
On move-in day, Rodriguez smelled fumes and noticed men tarring the flat roof of a house with asphalt at the end of her court at The Arbors housing complex in Antelope.
Later, she began to feel nauseous and dizzy. After what she described as two weeks of roof repair near her house, she developed sores in her nose, a sore throat and a persistent cough. Her lungs burned and breathing became laborious. Her doctor diagnosed her with intermittent asthma. She asked her doctor if inhaling fumes from asphalt would cause these symptoms and, according to Rodriguez, her doctor said yes.
“At first, I thought [the fumes] were just an assault on my senses,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s an assault on my health, and I’m scared.”
The Arbors is located at the old Capehart base housing for McClellan Air Force Base off Watt Avenue. About 500 homes, a recreation center and an elementary school sit on the property. Most of the houses have been tarred over the past two years or are set to be tarred by the end of the three-year roofing project.
What makes this project a concern for the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District—a county agency charged with protecting public health—is the frequency of the tar application, occurring day after day, and the fact that the project has taken two years (it’s been on hiatus since September).
“What’s unusual is for a project to last this long,” explained David Grose, stationary source division manger for the district.
Carmel Partners, owners of The Arbors, may be trying to do the right thing by keeping the houses, built roughly 60 years ago, in good condition by repairing the flat roofs. However, some residents worry the company is doing so at the potential expense of tenants’ health. The roofer agreed to use an asphalt kettle with an afterburner to reduce fumes once work resumes in the spring, according to Grose, who along with assistant air-quality specialist Thomas Kanemoto, met with the roofer and property owners back in September. But Rodriguez said this change is like “putting a filter on a cigarette.”
At Rodriguez’s request, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through its Technical Assistance Services for Communities program, put together a report for residents at The Arbors. According to the report, asphalt contains thousands of chemical compounds, including bitumens, which the state of California lists as known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. The material generates airborne chemicals, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, linked to birth defects in laboratory animals and organ-system damage. In pregnant women, PAHs can pass through the placenta to the fetal brain, and nursing infants can be exposed through a mother’s milk.
The report notes the limited research currently available on the health effects of asphalt exposure; however, research conducted on workers in the industry indicates that some of the chemical compounds and fumes could be hazardous. A TASC engineer will present the report to residents of The Arbors on Wednesday, January 28, at Center High School.
As Rodriguez learned more, she decided she had three options.
“I could be quiet and sick, but I’d feel like I victim and I don’t like that feeling. I can move and sue for those costs. Or I can try to stop it,” Rodriguez said.
She chose the third option, and before long found several other concerned neighbors, such as Jennine King, who moved with her husband to The Arbors in August of 2008. Almost immediately, King said she started to get sick. She works in a preschool and typically gets her students’ colds; but this time she said the illness was different.
“What caught me off guard was having sores inside my nose,” King said. “I was congested all the time and I had a chronic cough all day. It’d be dry or feel like I had extra phlegm. It was one extreme or the other. It hasn’t really gone away. In the whole time I’ve been here, I’ve probably been healthy for about four weeks total.”
Problems would flare up when she got home at night. She also experienced asthma, which she’d never had before in her life. She lives next door to where the kettle, rocks and asphalt are stored, and her bedroom windows open up to that yard, she said, but added that mold was found in her bedroom, which could have something to do with her sickness. Her husband hasn’t suffered any health problems, but King is four months pregnant and concerned about the health of her unborn baby.
“I don’t know the reason why I’ve been sick all the time,” King said. “I just know it’s really not fun.”
Elisa Martinez lived at The Arbors with her mom and sister for about three-and-a-half years before moving away in September. In August, she began experiencing a scratchy throat, mucus buildup and difficulty breathing. Her doctor told her she had a lung infection. Martinez said her health problem started when roofers were working on the house next door, adjacent to her bedroom. During the two-week project, she was unemployed and stayed home all day, unlike her mom and sister who went to their jobs and didn’t experience any symptoms.
Back in August, Rodriguez began filing complaints with the SMAQMD. The roofing may constitute a public nuisance if a considerable number of people complain that the asphalt fumes affect them adversely, Grose said. The SMAQMD has received four anonymous complaints, in addition to six filed by Rodriguez.
“She has a very valid complaint and we treat it as such,” Grose said.
Asphalt is an air pollutant and emits an objectionable odor, he said, and tarring roofs does have the potential to become a public nuisance. But the kettle is a “mobile source,” as roofers move the equipment throughout the housing community from week to week.
Grose said both the property owners and roofer have been responsive so far, but he’s waiting for spring when work resumes.
On December 23, Rodriguez received a letter from Wendee Campbell, senior community manager for The Arbors, stating that the office had received complaints from residents about the fliers Rodriguez had posted on their doors regarding the tar roofing.
Campbell told SN&R that over the course of the past five months Rodriguez put fliers on all 540 houses, and there were some found on car windshields and lying in the street, and that her office had received “numerous” complaints. Rodriguez said there’s no way she put fliers on every house in the community: “No, I wish I had.”
The letter stated that Campbell had contacted The Arbors’ legal department and the sheriff’s department “to get to the bottom of the attacks against The Arbors.” Campbell told SN&R it’s standard procedure for management to forward all information to their legal advisers.
After receiving the notice, Rodriguez said she called Campbell, who then told the resident to start looking for somewhere else to live, which Campbell denied.
“We just asked her to please stop,” Campbell said, adding that management had some other problems with Rodriguez and her husband—besides the fliering—but refused to clarify. The company did not make anyone available to answer SN&R’s questions about the hot-tar roofing project.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez has been gathering signatures on a petition to stop the tarring of 100 more roofs in the spring, which currently has about 70 signers since she began circulating the document at the end of November. She said when she spoke with The Arbors management about the issue several months ago, they understood her concerns but responded that they need to repair the roofs and have a contract to do so, not to mention that hot-tar roofing remains legal and a common method used to repair flat-roofs.
“'It’s legal,’ that’s their answer,” Rodriguez said. “It might be legal, but it’s not right.”