Sixteen fifth-graders at Centennial Lane Elementary School became budding political activists this spring.
The students, members of Eric Pellegrino’s science-based reading class at the Ellicott City school, are lobbying Howard County to ban the use of coal-tar sealant, a thick, black liquid that is sprayed or painted on asphalt.
Their work has caught the attention of County Councilman Jon Weinstein, who says his office is researching the issue and is considering proposing a ban
The students learned about the sealants, which have been banned in Prince George’s, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties and Washington, D.C., as part of a lesson on water pollution.
Coal-tar sealants, often used to restore the finish and extend the life of driveways and parking lots, contain chemicals with up to 35 percent coal-tar pitch, a human carcinogen, according to a National Institutes of Health toxic-substances database.
When the sealant breaks down, its dust drains into stormwater and contaminates nearby waterways and harm aquatic life, according to Barbara Mahler, a United States Geological Survey hydrologist who has co-authored studies on the issue.
Students researched the topic and compiled a presentation for Weinstein, who represents Ellicott City. Before their pitch to the councilman, students spoke with Mahler and her USGS colleague Peter Van Metre, as well as environmental specialists from D.C.’s Department of Energy and the Environment to fact-check their research and learn about the District’s ban.
“They had clearly done their homework,” Mahler said. “The scientific literature is pretty dense, I have college students that have trouble reading scientific papers and these kids had really made an effort to look at the depth and breadth of the research.”
Weinstein said he was equally impressed, and as a result, convinced it was a worthy cause. His office is determining how a ban might work in the county. His office is using the students’ research to help with its own.
Tracking how and where sealant is used in the county is difficult, Weinstein said, because much of its use is on private property. The county’s Department of Public Works does not use coal-tar sealants, as sealing pavements isn’t part of its maintenance plans, said Director Jim Irvin.
If legislation is introduced, students said they want to testify in support.
“We got to go to a professional work setting and see how things work,” said Sophia Zecerek, 11. “[Weinstein] liked it and he just treated us as if we were adults.”
Sophia said she is hoping to explain the points of the research and keep her testimony within the county’s five-minute limit.
Cindy Zhan, 11, had simple advice for anyone else looking to persuade a lawmaker: “Research, research, research.” Without thorough knowledge of the subject, Cindy said individuals aren’t as likely to convince others.
After her early forway into civic engagement, Mimi Kandadai, 10, said she’s seen the benefits.
“By being more involved in the legislation it gives us more confidence that people might listen to our ideas,” she said.