Construction of new high school draws concerns about tar fumes, won’t be complete for next school year

Inside Kingston Secondary School, which is currently under construction.
Photo supplied by the Limestone District School Board.

When Jennifer Kehoe brought her son home sick from school, she initially thought he was feigning illness. She’d been called to pick him up from Molly Brant Elementary six of the past 12 school days, but his nausea, headache, and sore throat seemed to go away within an hour of being home. On her seventh trip to the school, Kehoe noticed the odour of asphalt from nearby construction of the new Kingston Secondary School (KSS) “was so profound I could almost taste it”, and began to wonder if the fumes were causing her seven year old’s symptoms.

“It left a film on your teeth,” Kehoe said, detailing the impacts on the students, “Kids are physically vomiting.” She said there was no warning from the school or school board about the possible effects of the roof tar, and her requests for information were largely ignored.

On Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, Kehoe sent an email requesting information about the safety of the chemicals being used and inquiring about possible accommodations to prevent students from being affected. She requested the school provide the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the asphalt being used on Wednesday, Nov. 21. After contacting the superintendent of the Limestone District School Board (LDSB) on Thursday, Nov. 22, Kehoe said that Alison Fraser, Principal at Molly Brant Elementary, gave her a verbal estimate on Friday, Nov. 23, estimating the fumes would persist for two additional weeks.

After waiting five days for the school to respond to her request for the MSDS, Kehoe visited the construction site foreman on Monday, Nov. 26, who provided them immediately. Kehoe said that the school also provided the MSDS later that day.

According to the MSDS, the roofing asphalt has a category 1B carcinogenicity classification and a category 4 acute inhalation toxicity classification, meaning if inhaled, the substance is harmful and presumed to have the potential to cause cancer in humans. The health effects section stated that “fumes from hot material can be unpleasant and may produce irritation of the upper respiratory tract, nausea, headaches, and dizziness,” echoing the symptoms Kehoe’s son had been experiencing. The MSDS also described the substance to cause “damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure.”

Inside Kingston Secondary School, which is currently under construction.
Photo supplied by the Limestone District School Board.

Kehoe brought her findings from the MSDS to Principal Fraser, who sent students home with a letter in response. Dated Wednesday, Nov. 28, the letter describes the work being done on the roof of KSS, saying “sometimes, this work can produce unpleasant odours which are typical during roofing projects,” and states that the school is minimizing the amount of outside air intake to “alleviate any unpleasant odours.”

“It’s important to note that these odours are simply a nuisance and result in only potential temporary discomfort. These odours do not pose a health hazard for students or staff,” Fraser wrote in the letter. She went on to state that only “those working in direct and close proximity” to the tar “might experience possible lung irritation,” and details that the construction project has provided “much excitement” and “interesting learning opportunities” for the students.

Kehoe was unsatisfied with this response, and said that the HVAC changes to decrease outside air intake have made the fumes stagnant, increasing the problem. She decided to post her son’s symptoms, the health effects listed in the data sheet, and the principal’s response on the Molly Brant Elementary Parent Council Facebook group. Comments from other parents poured in, reporting similar symptoms to those listed in the MSDS and experienced by Kehoe’s son. One parent commented “My daughter was home with a headache, sore throat and dizziness this week. Just put 2 and 2 together now.” Another thanks Kehoe for the information, and stated they were “making some sense of some symptoms from our guys too from last couple weeks.”

Other parents described their first-hand experience with the effects during visits to the school. One commenter stated “I was getting a headache and sore throat and the smell was atrocious. I asked what the smell was and no one answered me. Which I was very frustrated with.” Another said the asphalt was “very strong to smell just for the short amount of time we are dropping off our kids. By the time I left I felt sick and had a headache,” and empathized with those who were exposed to it for longer periods of time: “Cannot imagine being in that all day,” she wrote, “Poor kids and staff.”

When Molly Brant Elementary opened in 2016, it was promised as an eco-friendly, disability accessible, state-of-the-art education facility, but the school has had a rocky first three years. The Fraser Institute ranks Molly Brant in the bottom one percentile of Ontario elementary school performance rankings, and the Ontario Ministry of Education student achievement reports show that most students fall below the provincial standard in reading, writing, and math. Over a third of the students receive special education services. One staff member who requested to be kept anonymous described the environment as “constant chaos,” and stated that the effect of the asphalt fumes had aggravated already-hectic classrooms. “By 10 a.m., they’re unmanageable,” the source said.

One of the solutions proposed by Kehoe and the parent council was for the construction company to reserve the use of asphalt to outside school hours. However, this request has yet to receive any response from the school, school board, or construction company.

While the school and board have asserted that the asphalt doesn’t pose any health risks, many parents are skeptical after seeing their children’s symptoms listed as possible health effects of asphalt fumes on the MSDS. However, Kehoe’s post only displays the top half of one of nine pages, stating the rest of the MSDS is available upon request, and doesn’t provide specific details on the level of exposure consistent with health damage.

Dr. Philip Jessop, a Professor of Chemistry at Queen’s University and Canada Research Chair of Green Chemistry, provided some insight on the specifics of asphalt usage risks. While the symptoms the children display may be alarming, Jessop advised that any vapours that reach the school would not be potent enough to cause long term damage or increased risk of cancer.

Jessop cited a 2004 article from The Annals of Occupational Hygiene that measured the mean exposure of asphalt paving workers at 24 micrograms per m3, which is well below the Ontario allowable limit of 500 micrograms per m3.

“The exposure experienced by people living or working nearby would likely be lower than the exposure of workers,” Jessop stated.

“The students are unlikely to be at any risk of harm.”

However, Jessop cautioned that “students with a sensitivity to organic vapours or to particulates, or students with asthma and related conditions, could be significantly more at risk.”

A spokesperson for Bondfield Construction, the contractor hired by the Limestone District School Board, said that the roof tarring being done at the site was “no different than any other roof in the east end of the country,” and declined to comment on the asphalt complaints on the basis that “this is not Bondfield’s issue.” The Limestone District School Board lists Bondfield as the builder of Kingston’s École Sir John A. Macdonald Public School, as well as “dozens of other elementary and secondary schools throughout Ontario.”

In addition to schools, Bondfield has many other public sector contracts, 13 of which have been delayed or put in limbo due to inability to pay subcontractors and complete jobs, and three that have been terminated entirely. A September Globe and Mail article describes a “flurry of lawsuits, liens and a growing list of aggrieved public institutions” following the wake of the delays and cancellations.

Inside Kingston Secondary School, which is currently under construction.
Photo supplied by the Limestone District School Board.

When asked if the KSS project had faced delays during a phone call on Monday, Dec. 3, a Bondfield spokesperson said the project was “right on the schedule of when it’s supposed to been done.” When contacted that same day, LDSB communications officer Jane Douglas-Charanduk said that the projected completion “would be dependent on weather.” While she was unable to comment on the accuracy of the two-week timeline Principal Fraser gave Kehoe, Douglas-Charanduk stated that the school would be completed for the 2018-2019 school year.

A Wednesday, Dec. 12 email and subsequent website update confirmed that the “large and complex project” was behind schedule due to “unforeseen delays and disruptions.” The LDSB website post also announced that KSS will no longer be opening in September 2019 as planned, and that “the Board is working with the contractor to develop a revised construction schedule” to be shared with the community “as soon as possible, likely in January.” The Board stated that students and staff will remain at KCVI until further notice, and anticipates the move to occur sometime within the 2019-2020 school year.

A rendering of the main entrance of Kingston Secondary School. Construction when complete may not be identical.
Graphic supplied by the Limestone District School Board.

Douglas-Charanduk emphasized the steps taken to “mitigate and to minimize the odour,” mentioning the adjustments made to the HVAC and stating “there is certainly no threat to the health and safety of staff or students.” When asked about the reports of students’ symptoms, she declined to comment.


Michelle Allan is a recent Queen’s University graduate and freelance journalist. Her interests include local news, Canadian politics, and social equity issues. She can be reached at [email protected].

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