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


2013 Review: Snowball Effect Grows, But Avalanche Needed

Snowball by Deutsch used with permission The inter-related aspects of coal tar sealant pollution were never more obvious than in the ye...

Snowball by Deutsch used with permission
The inter-related aspects of coal tar sealant pollution were never more obvious than in the year 2013.  Research affected the press, which in turn mobilized citizens and legislators to act in a snowball-like fashion.  And the whole time industry tried in vain to melt the snowball as with a hair dryer by outrageous claims and faux research.  This is a review of some of the highlights of the major events of year, which was the 8th year since the nation's first ban of coal tar sealants in Austin, Texas.

Most importantly, about 4 million more Americans are under coal tar sealant bans now than this time last year.

That is a 33% increase, where most could be attributed to the statewide ban in Minnesota.  Several other bans are under development that could dwarf that number.  Also, this site just surpassed 100,000 page views with web traffic that has doubled in the last 2 years and can be as much as 30 times more than the traffic was back in 2006.

This good news needs to be tempered with the fact that an avalanche of public outcry will be needed to eliminate this product from use, yet most Americans still have no idea of this issue.

While all of these aspects are related, it seems reasonable to summarize the highlights in these categories: Science, Press, Legislation, Citizen Action, and Industry Response.


Early in the year, news emerged about the publication of the Baylor University/USGS research into the possible health effects of coal tar sealant dust exposure.  According to the primary researcher, Dr. Spencer Williams, "the increased cancer risk associated with coal-tar-sealed asphalt likely affects a large number of people in the U.S."  This is the first published, risk assessment of its kind and something that was suspected all along.  The below graphic, which was developed using the Baylor statistics shows that the risk to small children is especially high and in the "desired remediation" zone (red).  More can be read about this at:

Additional scientific research emerged from the Pennsylvania showing coal tar sealants can be a dominate source in ex-urban/rural US.  Also late in the year, Dr. Judy Crane published a lengthy PAH paper in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology on the sources of PAH pollution in urban stormwater ponds in Minnesota and the policy implications of those findings.  Look for a full review of this paper in January.


Coverage expanded this year which enabled millions more to hear about this.  The press and social media that followed a March announcement from Baylor University was unprecedented.  Multiple media outlets around the nation and world covered it with headlines like Proximity To Parking Lots And Sealed Pavements Linked With Elevated Cancer Risk, and Your Neighborhood's Cancer Causing Secret.  Later in that same month, the Chicago Tribune demonstrated a pattern of exaggeration in the coal tar sealant industry's research.

In June, USA TODAY, with the nation's second largest number of subscribers, came out with a solid article entitled Toxic Driveways? Cities Ban Coal Tar Sealants that detailed the dangers, what researchers are saying, and discussed the future of bans.  One applicator stated that he believed "we are at the tipping point in the movement away from the use of coal tar sealers."

In July NBC Nightly News prepared for a segment on coal tar pavement sealants.  It never aired.  I was reminded of a PBS radio segment several staff in Austin worked on in 2006 which also never aired.  So it goes the media.

The year did see several well-done, extended segments by local TV news stations in Ohio (Is Your Driveway Making You Sick?), North Carolina (Toxic Driveways and the Test You Can Do at Home) and Oklahoma where one public health official said it's not OK to use coal tar sealants "anytime, by anyone, anywhere."

One surprise media coverage came on the TV show The Doctors, which had an entire segment to this issue.  The show has an audience of about 2 million viewers. Each of these news stories reaches a different demographic, all of which need to hear this message.

Minnesota's ban was most notable and it is worth mentioning what Senator Bev Scalze said of the effort:
Yes, this is a great day in Minnesota when we have now banned the sale and application of coal tar sealant in Minnesota. Rep. Rick Hansen was the chief author in the Minnesota House of Representatives and I was the chief author in the Minnesota Senate of the bills, one of which made it through the process. Thanks to help from Representative Phyllis Kahn, Senator Richard Cohen and Senator Katie Sieben the language remained in the final Clean Water Legacy bill which was signed by Governor Dayton.
Additonal ban legislation efforts were started or continued in jurisdictions in New York, where it passed the Assembly by a wide, bipartisan majority; Maine, where it was narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives; Michigan, where it never got out of committee and Indiana, where the sponsor was unable to get traction for a study of the problem in the state.  A bit more detailed review of these efforts can be found here.  A ban in New York alone would more than double the population under a ban in the US.

At a municipal level, the City of Chicago introduced a bill to ban coal tar sealants too.  It has been heard in committee, but it is uncertain when or if additional action will be taken.  One important development here is the written support of the head of the Chicago Department of Public Health.  That may be a nod by the present mayor of support.

South Carolina saw its first ban of any type in Greenville and Springfield, Missouri continued to be poked and prodded by a former councilman, but did not take up the matter officially.

Nationally, Congressman Lloyd Doggett (TX) unveiled a revised bill in April to phase out the use of coal tar sealants, but the bill was never heard in committee.  This coincided with Earth Day where the Congressman tweeted:
On #EarthDay let's remember that we have a long way to go to ensure a better world for our kids & grandkids.
Amen to that.

Why do these bills fail to be heard?  While we can complain about lobbyists and special interests, the fact is that there is not enough public outcry over this common, everyday carcinogen to get many bills off dead center.


Around the US, citizens are calling on their elected officials to do something about coal tar pavement sealants.  Every media story spurs more to ask their officials.  But to honest, we need more.

Notable among these is a petition that was started and signed by over 9,000 people for the nation to ban this product.  Here are some of the citizen responses:
This stuff is known to be very toxic, you want to live in it, move next to a refinery, stop dumping it on unsuspecting driveway etc owners
Mr. Wells Eddleman, NC

Allowing the use of this sealant is a blatant disrespect for the lives of our children and the health of our community. This must stop now!!! Congress needs to be responsible and hold companies responsible for their actions and ban the use of any known substances that cause harm to animal and human health! This is an OUTRAGE!
Ms. Dawn Drew, TX
 The smell of this is awful. I just had a terrible asthma attack yesterday from the smell of a truck going down the road. Ban this now for every ones health. I was on my way to the doctor when this happen, now I'm on meds to get my breathing back to normal.
Ms. Sandy Nichols, MI
 Please, do the right thing and ban coal tar pavement sealant permanently in all states! Our children's health and futures are at stake here!
Ms. Susan Rose, AZ
This year also marked the advance of the citizen-scientist via the Physicians for Social Responsibility.  Chapters in New York City, Texas, Chicago and Maine have endorsed the reduction in the use of coal tar sealers for the health of humans, especially children.


"Industry" is not a homogeneous group and that continued to be evident this year.  Perhaps it would be more succinct to differentiate Suppliers/Producers from Applicators.  The greatest amount of resistance comes from the Suppliers/Producers both in funding and advocacy, but many Applicators have demonstrated a willingness to move away from coal tar containing sealcoat products.

Earlier in the year, the Suppliers/Producers (as represented by the Pavement Coatings Technology Council) hosted a webinar on how to save your business and stop bans from happening.  Some of the Applicators have told me that this rings of desperation and that most of the Applicators recognize the need to move to less toxic alternatives.

This year marked progress among applicators in at least 2 states, Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Over 100 applicators from six Great Lakes States, but primarily form Wisconsin and Minnesota, pledged to no longer use coal tar sealers.  The efforts were highlighted by a series of webinars hosted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and recordings of these sessions are available here.


To make progress in the reduction of coal tar sealant use requires individuals and groups to go beyond business as usual.  If I could definitively answer the following questions, then I could predict EXACTLY how 2014 will go:
  • Will the media see this as a story that should continue to be told?  
  • Will additional research come to light which calculates the hazards of coal tar sealers and compels more news coverage?  
  • Will citizens have the conviction to step out from the herd to voice their convictions?  
  • Will government scientists and engineers (federal, state, and municipal), where allowed, bring this issue before their elected representatives or will they continue to cower to preserve their careers and income?
  • Will legislators do more than introduce bills, but rally their constituencies and creatively push for bans?
  • Will legislators realize this is not a partisan issue?
  • Will more and more applicators abandon the use of coal tar sealers and no longer be the poisoned pawns of coal tar producers?
  • Will social media be harnessed to rally citizens to ban this?
  • Will the industry end with the distortions and distractions and own up to their responsibility for this pervasive pollution problem?
  • Will the legal profession make any headway this year?

All I can say is this: let the snow begin!


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Coal Tar Free America: 2013 Review: Snowball Effect Grows, But Avalanche Needed
2013 Review: Snowball Effect Grows, But Avalanche Needed
Coal Tar Free America
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