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Seeing Asthma Through Tar-Tinted Glasses

Ever meet that gregarious sort that moves through a crowd, not just greeting folks, but dispensing encouragement like rain to a parched gr...

Ever meet that gregarious sort that moves through a crowd, not just greeting folks, but dispensing encouragement like rain to a parched ground? Peter is just like that. He's old enough to have grown children, probably in his fifties or sixties. I watched him move through a crowd with grace at the Transplant Games of America in Houston, Texas over the weekend.

Peter, in the transplant world, is known as a member of a "donor family," which means that upon a loved one's unexpected death, their organs are donated to others. His only daughter, Jessica, died from an asthma attack at the age of 24. She was a graduate in dance and was pursuing that career in New York when she died. Four lives were saved through her pre-mature death because of her decision to become an organ donor. In her honor, her father is an active advocate for organ donation throughout the country.

Pardon my ignorance, but I didn't realize that asthma could be fatal to a seemingly healthy young person. However, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation about 9 American die every day from an asthma attack; 44,000 on average have an asthma attack and 1 in 5 Americans is affected by asthma or allergies.

What's this got to do with coal tar sealers for pavement? While there are documented cases where this average pavement product has precipitated an asthma attack, let's recognize there are so many internal and external causes that it would be impossible today to know with any certainty. The percentage of cases from this is probably small, but unknown.

But what we do know is that this is a completely unnecessary and potent source of environmental contamination. This contamination shows up everywhere from hospitals, to schools, to homes and businesses--anywhere an asphalt surface would look better black than gray. The chemical of concern is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Many sources, like this one, attribute some of the environmental triggers for asthma development to this chemical group. Research has shown that it is among the most potent urban air sources of PAHs.

Want to know what it's like to encounter a coal tar sealed surface when you have asthma? Listen to what a member of the Maine Assembly, Representative Craig Hickman said in a debate over a ban there in 2013. He has difficulty breathing after encountering it and it last for days.


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Frequently coal tar producers claim that banning this will hurt small businesses. What is the cost of spreading that gunk throughout the nation? $18 billion in lost wages, sick time and hospital visits for all asthmas. Even if just a small percentage was caused by sealers, it would rival all the profits of this entire industry.

It is sad to see that Jessica died in a state that has rejected a ban of coal tar sealers three times. While my admiration for donor parents will continue for people like Peter, I wonder when the unnecessary suffering will end.

Please share this information with a friend or family member with asthma and ask your local community to stop its use.

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Coal Tar Free America: Seeing Asthma Through Tar-Tinted Glasses
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