2012 marked advancements in our understanding of the science of coal tar sealant pollution, greater legislative restrictions on its use and more extensive media coverage of the topic in popular press. Interestingly this week also commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln back in 1862. More on that after we look at the top milestones.

Here are my choices for the top 13 events of 2012:


13. Great Lakes PAH Sealant Reduction Project- This is an EPA grant given to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to encourage the reduction of the use of coal tar sealants throughout the Great Lakes states. Information about the program has been evolving throughout the fall of this year with their official website just being launched in mid-December. I hope to do a more thorough review of the program soon.

The mission of the effort is: Phase-out and replacement of coal tar-based sealcoats with safer alternatives and practices will reduce loading of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to surface waters and sediments in Great Lakes states and provinces, and reduce hazards to children and vulnerable adults playing, living or working near coal tar-sealed surfaces like drives, parking lots, and playgrounds.

12. Wanted: A Few More Sam Sisisky's Please- This is a tribute to the passion of an ordinary man who caught a vision of the damage that sealants were doing in his community and decided to do something about it.

11. The High Cost of Cheap Coal Tar- What are the economics of coal tar sealant and its alternatives? While asphalt-based sealants are generally 20% more expensive, if the cleanup costs are included, then the real cost of coal tar-based sealant goes from $3 per gallon to over $130 per gallon!

10. USGS Publishes State-of-the-Science Sealant Paper with-State-Local-University Collaboration-This new paper compiled the state of our knowledge about the environmental and human health effects of coal tar sealant as well as the status of legislative actions up to the end of 2011. In addition to the USGS, contributors included the State of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the University of New Hampshire, Baylor University and the City of Austin.

9. The Demise of the Coal Tar Sealant Ban Legislation in California-The California ban attempt is a good illustration of how well the EPA's hands-off approach to coal tar sealant bans is working. Even the State of California couldn't get the traction necessary to pass a ban! In October 2011, an EPA report stated that perhaps the best way to manage this pollution source is for local units of government to ban it.

In spite of being in an environmentally-progressive state, significant coal tar sealant use, support from key environmental organizations and no apparent opposition from the sealant industry, the ban failed. How does this result bode for others that want to take it on? Is that the role of the EPA to act as spectator to a long, drawn out, effort by communities across the nation?

8. New Resources: Interactive Map of US Coal Tar Sealant Bans & Restricted-Use Areas Now Online! and Toxic Trail Across the US: A Coal Tar Sealant Pollution Infographic-These two new information sources have been extremely popular-even more popular than any post ever written here! While I hope that the map is someday obsolete with coal tar sealants banned everywhere in the US, until then this is the go-to source or where the material is banned and where it isn't.

The Toxic Trail Infographic is a summary of the key points about coal tar sealcoats that make them a problem. In one graphic you can get the main idea of the issue.

7. DC Continues to Lead Nation on Coal Tar Sealer Ban Enforcement- Washington D.C.'s Department of the Environment (DDOE) continues to lead on the enforcement of coal sealant bans.  While every ban that is passed is cause for celebration, without adequate enforcement a ban may be only a "feel good" effort by a community and not bring about a healthier community.

6. New EPA Resources on Coal Tar Sealants: Scores Attend Historic EPA Coal Tar Sealant Webinar and US EPA Releases New Info on Coal Tar Sealant Pollution- In 2012, the EPA made two efforts to educate the technical community about coal tar sealants: one through an online course or "webinar" and the other through a document encouraging cities and towns to reduce their use of coal tar sealers.

5. Coal Tar Freedom at Schools: State of Minnesota Asks Schools to Stop Coal Tar Sealant Use and Austin Schools Advance to Head of the Class with Landmark Sealant Cleanup Announcement- These are two huge firsts in this effort: a state agency asking schools to stop coal tar sealer use and a local school district removing the remnants of coal tar sealant completely from their schools. The wisdom of these two actions will become more apparent as the years go by.

4. Coal Tar Sealer Problem Has Gone Mainstream, Reader's Digest Shows- The July/August issue of Reader's Digest demonstrated that coal tar sealant pollution has gone mainstream. With the largest circulation of any general interest magazine at over 5 million subscribers, this issue's article, Toxic Danger Zones in Your Backyard, is sure to have a positive ripple effect.

The article gives a concise summary of the problem: familiar coal tar driveway sealants could be polluting your backyard and/or home with toxic PAHs. Readers were encouraged to use less toxic asphalt-based sealants instead and take precautionary measures to minimize dragging sealer dust and debris into your home.

3. Over a Million More Under Bans This Year- In spite of state-level setbacks in California, Illinois, Michigan, Maryland and New York, significant ban legislation was passed in Montgomery County, Maryland and in the City of Minneapolis. These two jurisdictions alone represent more than 1.2 million people.

In Minnesota a dozen more communities enacted coal tar ban ordinances. Illinois passed their first in South Barrington. The State of Texas saw its second major ban of coal tar sealants and the first in over 6 years as part of the Edwards Aquifer Authority between San Antonio and Austin.

2. Texas Doctors Support Coal Tar Sealant Restrictions- In a landmark move, a Texas-based group of doctors and health care providers adopted language in support of banning coal tar pavement sealants. The Austin Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) is part of a national organization with about 40,000 members. It is the first organization of health care providers that has taken such a stand.

In a letter sent to the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA), the Austin PSR stated the following:
“Austin PSR supports the elimination of the use coal tar sealants as they contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) which contaminate the environment and are potentially dangerous to the public health.”
In a related item, a study published at the National Institutes for Health states the risk of getting lung cancer for a female non-smoker working or living with a smoker is about the same as the risk of getting cancer from a coal tar sealed parking lot!

The problem is that while most of us would never think of exposing our children to second hand smoke at school, commercial area or home, they can be very much exposed to high-levels of PAH pollution from coal tar pavement sealants at those same locations that creates a similar risk. Let's work together to eliminate the unnecessary risk to our communities!

1. Congressman Doggett Introduces National Ban on Coal Tar Sealants- Congressman Lloyd Doggett of Texas with the support of legislators from Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, and Massachusetts as well as the nation's major environmental advocacy groups, introduced a bill (H.R. 4166 The Coal Tar Sealant Reduction Act of 2012) to end the use of coal tar sealants in the US in the next few years!

Congressman Doggett said, "Although other local communities have taken action, we cannot wait for all other communities simply to catch up..." Citing research by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) which gives the following reasons for a nationwide ban:

  • contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) "which are probable human carcinogens, having been identified as such by the Environmental Protection Agency" which are "toxic to aquatic life" and "present in pavement sealants, known as sealcoats, made from coal tar"
  • "coal tar sealants are widely used on parking lot surfaces, airport runways, and driveways;"
  • "research conducted by the United States Geological Survey indicates that elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on parking lots, where the dust may be tracked into homes and increase health risks, are associated with use of these coal tar sealants"
  • "research conducted by the United States Geological Survey indicates that elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in waterways, where they are toxic to aquatic life and enter the food chain, are associated with use of these coal tar sealants;"
Emancipation?

Is it a stretch to consider the restrictions on the use of coal tar sealers "emancipation?" While is not intended to compare the misery and sacrifice to that former struggle in our nation's history, it is important to understand that freedom is not a moment in time only. One dictionary states one of the definitions is the "process of becoming free." So by that definition, the United States is in the process of coal tar sealant emancipation. We are much more free as a nation today as we were 12 months ago, but yet ultimate freedom from the continued use and the legacy effects of past applications remains at some future date. Won't you join us in this effort?

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