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MD County's Proposed Sealant Ban Sparks Debate

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

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A Maryland county’s plan to phase out the use of pavement sealers made with coal tar has raised objections from local manufacturers, who argue that health risks from the products are exaggerated by those looking to ban the substances.

Pavement sealer
Justin McInnis, USGS

Coal tar sealcoats have been found by the U.S. Geological Survey to contribute heavily to PAH contamination in streams, which can in turn pose a risk to aquatic life. 

Howard County Councilor Jon Weinstein introduced legislation last week to ban pavement sealers containing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) based on concerns over threats to human health and water quality. The legislation is still being considered, and hasn’t been passed.

The Sealers

Coal tar sealcoats have been found by the U.S. Geological Survey to contribute heavily to PAH contamination in streams, which can in turn pose a risk to aquatic life. Cities and counties throughout the country have begun to ban the sealants; Milwaukee, where one USGS study took place, banned the products in 2016, as did San Antonio, Texas.

Coal tar itself is considered to be a carcinogen, with workers exposed via inhalation, ingestion and absorption through the skin, according to the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health. Occupational exposure to coal tar or coal-tar pitch is associated with increased risk of skin cancer and, to a lesser degree, bladder, lung and kidney cancers.

Howard County’s proposed ban came after a campaign by local fifth-graders to stop the use of the sealers. But some in the industry are hoping the County Council will reconsider: According to the Baltimore Sun, the president of sealcoat supplier SealMaster-Baltimore, Tom Decker, argues that the health concerns associated with the products is being overstated, noting that he works with coal tar every day and is “in pretty good health.”

Debate Over Dangers

The Pavement Coatings Technology Council, which represents suppliers of the sealcoats, says the application of sealcoats does not pose an inhalation risk for workers, and notes that coal-tar-based creams are used topically to treat conditions such as eczema. The group says much of the evidence of coal tar products posing a cancer risk comes from situations in which the substance is heated to a high temperature, which is not an issue in sealcoating operations.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has said in the past that long-term repeated exposure to coal tar pitch can cause dermatitis and hyperpigmentation of the skin, and reiterated that the substance is carcinogenic to humans. NIOSH has in recent years been performing further research on health hazards in the sealcoat industry.

Howard County Council will meet next Monday, Sept. 17, to discuss legislation, including the potential sealcoat ban. Neighboring counties, including Prince George’s and Anne Arundel, as well as the District of Columbia, have already banned the products.


Tagged categories: Government; Health & Safety; Health and safety; NA; North America; Regulations; Roads/Highways; Sealers

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (10/10/2018, 10:00 AM)

Coal tar is toxic stuff. PAHs are bad for most life forms (whether fish or humans) The cost of substituting with less hazardous products is pretty minimal.

Comment from Michael Halliwell, (10/11/2018, 11:50 AM)

It would be interesting to see what the mixture contains...many PAHs are known carcinogens while others aren't, while some are semi-volatile (potential inhalation hazard) while others aren't. When it comes to water, most have very low solubility in water, but it doesn't take much to cause issues, especially in fresh water aquatic life (our local water guidelines are in the parts per trillion range). Definitely worth looking at...and restricting or banning if appropriate.

Comment from Michael Quaranta, (10/11/2018, 1:49 PM)

A farmer had 5 female pigs. Times were hard, so he decided to take them to the county fair and sell them. At the fair, he met another farmer who owned 5 male pigs. After talking a bit, they decided to mate the pigs and split their profits 50/50. The farmers lived 60 miles apart, so they decided to drive 30 miles toward each other's farm the following morning and find a field in which to let the pigs mate. The first morning, the farmer with the male pigs got up at 5 a.m., loaded the pigs into the family station wagon (the only vehicle he had) and drove the 30 miles. The other farmer loaded his female pigs in his truck and also drove the 30 miles. While the pigs were in the field mating, one farmer asked the other, "How will we know if they're pregnant?" The other farmer replied, "If they're lying in the grass tomorrow morning, they'll be pregnant. If they're lying in the mud, they're not." The next morning the pigs were rolling in the mud. So the farmers hosed them off, loaded them into their respective vehicles and agreed to try again the next morning. This continued each day for more than a week and both farmers were worn out. The next morning, one was too tired to even get out of bed. So he called out to his wife, "Honey, please look outside and tell me whether the pigs are in the mud or in the grass." "Neither," yelled his wife, .... "They're in the station wagon. And one of them is honking the horn!"

Comment from Erik Andreassen, (10/13/2018, 6:40 AM)

The U.S. has the perfect answer to the repairs on it's doorstep. Check the material that was used on the Bay Bridge repairs following an earthquake. The repair does not involve the Worldwide banned Coal Tar and the repairs can be driven or walked over in literally minutes after the application. I'm talking about Polyureah. The company involved was Line-X. I'm sure they will provide the fastest and possibly the long term solution to the problem.I used this numerous time in Saudi Arabia and it's still there 25 years llater.

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