As seen in USA Today, MSNBC, Dr. Oz, and the Chicago Tribune.


A Source of Toxic PAH-llution

Article from the Fall 2011 Estuary News of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary Ever cringe while watching a video from the ’50s ...

Article from the Fall 2011 Estuary News of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary

Ever cringe while watching a video from the ’50s of children being sprayed with DDT at a neighborhood pool? Maybe you were one of them! Or do you ever wonder, what were they thinking as doctors smoked in patients’ rooms in the ’60s? Ever feel that way when you or your neighbor seals a driveway? Do you feel a sense of foreboding for the environment and perhaps the children that may play on this surface? Most don’t—yet, but I do, and let me tell you why.

What is Coal Tar?

Most of the black liquid sprayed or mopped onto driveways and parking lots as pavement preservation or beautification is made from a material called “coal tar.” Coal tar is a waste product from the steel industry where purified coal (called “coke”) is used. Consequently, the most common kind of hazardous waste site in the United States is from coal tar. That fact prompted one headline from the Chicago Tribune: “Too Toxic for the Dump, But OK for Your Driveway.”

There are other parking-lot sealants on the market that are much less toxic, like asphalt, gilsonite or acrylic, but their use is far less common.: “Too Toxic for the Dump, But OK for Your Driveway.”  There are other parking-lot sealants on the market that are much less toxic, like asphalt, gilsonite or acrylic, but their use is far less common.

What is the Problem with Coal Tar-based Pavement Sealant?

“There is a very clear connection between the use of these sealants and high levels of contamination downstream,” said Dr. Alison Watts, a University of New Hampshire researcher who studied the connection between parking-lot sealant and stream pollution. “The problem isn’t going to go away if you keep putting this stuff down every three years.”  The chemical of concern is actually a family of chemicals: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Graphic Depicting Coal Tar Sealant Pollution from MN Pollution Control Agency

 Just last year, the instantaneous effects of coal tar sealant pollution were caught on film in Boone, North Carolina after a coal tar sealant applicator’s work was washed off into a stream by a storm. Numerous trout and crayfish died as a result. Early this year the Town of Boone enacted rules to restrict the use of coal tar sealants there. The video is available on YouTube and can be found by searching for “coal tar,” “Boone” and “fish kill.” [or just look at the videos listed on this site]

PAHs are created from the incomplete combustion of organic material and can come from a variety of sources, but in much smaller concentrations. According to a 2005 study by the City of Austin, the concentration of coal tar sealant is dramatically higher than that which flakes off any other source. In fact, the flakes that come off a driveway are more than 1,000 times more toxic than the “effects concentration” of aquatic species. The effects concentration is the concentration which causes observable, adverse biological effects and reproduction problems in aquatic species.

What about the Effects of Coal Tar Sealants on People?

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), an environmental science and research branch of the U.S.government, found that people living in ground-level apartments in Austin, Texas, where coal tar sealants are on the parking lot, are likely to have elevated  PAH concentrations in the dust in their carpets. While there currently is no standard in the United States for PAH concentration in household dust, a German standard was exceeded in more than one in three apartments.  PAHs have been documented to cause cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, asthma, and decreased sperm counts in men. The lifetime cancer risk factor for coal tar sealant exposure has not yet been published, but soon it will be. [Editor's note: Actually this was done by a toxicologist in a public meeting last week, see UConn PAH Seminar: Human Cancer Risks Federally "Unacceptable"]

The Road Ahead

Currently over 10 million U.S. citizens live in communities where coal tar sealants are banned. Home Depot and Lowes have stopped selling coal tar sealants in their stores.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts limits the use of coal tar sealants near wetlands. The State of Minnesota has ceased its use on state properties and projects. Statewide legislation has been introduced in a half-dozen states and was passed in 2010 in the State of Washington. 

Discussions have begun at a national level about phasing out the use of this product. In the meantime, concerned individuals can minimize their risks by not using coal tar sealants, being aware of their exposures, getting involved in phase-out efforts at the national and local level, and talking to their communities about coal tar sealant pollution.
This site and the views expressed in this article are not associated with, or paid for by, any city, trade organization, or manufacturing group.


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Coal Tar Free America: A Source of Toxic PAH-llution
A Source of Toxic PAH-llution
Coal Tar Free America
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