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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 and safety; Regulations; Roads/Highways; Sealers

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