Chicagoland: Home of the Most Toxic Creeks in the US?

In a manner of speaking, yes. While there are many chemical and biological measures of stream health, one carcinogenic constituent, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are showing up with higher numbers, over a broader area than anywhere else found in the U.S. The land use draining to these creeks are not factories, waste mounds and brownfields, but bucolic bedroom communities with schools, shopping centers and homes.

This enhanced, unofficial video presentation was first given by Stephen McCracken of the DuPage River/Salt Creek Workgroup (DRSCW) at an EPA-funded webinar hosted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on December 12, 2013. DuPage County has the greatest frequency of high PAH sediment levels ever found in the United States. Austin, TX passed their ban of coal tar pavement sealers with 13% of creeks exceeding a standard biological effects concentration. Springfield, MO found about 48% of their creek-sediment test sites exceed this concentration, but in the DuPage combined watershed area, 76% exceeded these values! With very little industrial use, it is extremely likely that this is caused by the use of coal tar pavement sealants.

Continued Coal Tar Sealant Use

A few years ago, it was incorrectly reported that the 36 or so local governmental members of the DRSCW had agreed to stop using coal tar sealants, at least at a governmental level.  While the minutes of the meeting stated that:

All of the members of the DRSCW are researching their public contracts to be sure coal tar sealants will not be used.

it would have been more reasonable to say that, using a Texas expression, they were “fixin’ to” stop using coal tar sealers and had not formally adopted this. Actually only a third of the member communities formally agreed to stop using this product.*  Ironically one member, the Village of Darien, went so far as to re-seal their very own Village Hall complex with coal tar sealants after this announcement!

DuPage County’s signing of this agreement, as shown above with the County Board Chair, was part of an important, but mostly symbolic gesture by several area units of government which really accounts for less than 5% of the county-wide use. As an example, below is a report to District 88 detailing the continued use of this toxic product at area schools in 2013. 

Best Places to Live?

Communities in this study area routinely show up on Money Magazine’s Best Places to Live list.  These are places with good schools, jobs, and low crime.  However, children are the most vulnerable population to this toxic product as reported in this study. This has even been covered by The Doctors TV show, but many still fail to understand the risks.

A Business Model for Ceasing the Use of Coal Tar Sealants

Hey its DuPage County, home of many business-minded Republicans. How can they be convinced to support this?

Back in 2007, the City of Austin team worked with the New York Academy of Sciences on PAH pollution in the NY Harbor. At those meetings, the Chief Sustainability Officer for Lowes, Michael Chennard, said that they stopped selling coal tar sealants after learning about it from Austin, based upon a business model. Here’s the Lowes’ equation:

  1. Identify products that have a high potential liability. He said their pockets were now deeper than many of their suppliers, so they have more to lose.
  2. Find out if their are suitable alternatives in quality and price.
  3. If both the quality and prices are similar then remove the problematic product from the shelves

If it isn’t good enough for Lowes and Home Depot, why is it good enough for DuPage schools, homes and businesses?

The Look Ahead

Bans are being considered in Chicago, and McHenry County and it has already been banned in South Barrington. As a Maine Assembymember said, “for the sake of our children, I rise in support of this effort.” May you rise in support as well.

* List of DRSCW Members Pledged to Cease Government Use of Coal Tar Sealers

  • Village of Addison
  • Village of Carol Stream
  • The County of DuPage
  • The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County
  • Glenbard Wastewater Authority
  • The Village of Lombard
  • Wheaton Sanitary District
  • The City of Elmhurst
  • The City of Naperville
  • The Village of Bloomingdale
  • Downers Grove Sanitary District
  • Village of Woodridge