Why Coal Tar Sealers Fail to Meet Consumer Protection Standards

Illinois Coal Tar Ban to be Heard by House Consumer Protection Committee


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There are five fundamental areas where coal tar sealers fail to meet reasonable consumer protection standards. They are:

  1. Health
  2. Environment
  3. Social Justice
  4. Economy
  5. Transparency


Coal tar sealers contain known human carcinogens. First of all, understand that coal tar is a known human carcinogen made of some known human carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) according to the National Institutes of Health.

These facts have led the American Medical Association (AMA), the Director of the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Illinois Physicians for Social Responsibility to call for the end of the use of this product.

To answer the question of “badness,” there are several ways to look at it. Typically we just look at cancer, but coal tar is a known also to cause birth defects, to be immediately toxic, cause genetic mutations, trigger asthma and cause heart disease. But let’s look at cancer because that is a language that most of us are familiar with.

  • risk of cancer from living with a smoker: about 1:10,000 
  • risk of cancer for a child living near a coal tar sealed parking lot: about 1:10,000
  • risk of cancer from coal tar shampoo: Negligible 
By the way, the Federal Regulations state:

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Coal tar sealers are the most potent, commonplace and mobile of these carcinogens in modern American life. The chemicals in abundance in coal tar sealers are PAH’s.

Some may claim that new standards reduce that risk but research just published last year used proposed values and found the toxicity actually increasing when the full gamut of PAH’s is considered.

A tangible example can be seen by comparing the fairly-new PAH standard for plush or stuffed toys in Europe to that of coal tar sealer.

EU Standard for PAH in Toys:                         0.5 ppm

Average PAH Content in Coal Tar Sealer: 70,000 ppm!!


Evidence, created by a branch of the USGS, but not the researchers doing coal tar sealant work, shows PAH contamination in Chicagoland suburban streams are in the top 5% of contaminated streams in the entire US! That is after comparing over 1,200 streams nationwide. These levels weren’t found in an old industrial area like Lake Calumet; they were in suburban Western Springs and in Salt Creek!

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Here’s what the MWRDGC says should be done with this info:

“Water quality data and analysis for the Upper Illinois River Basin NAWQA study will be useful in developing Illinois nutrient standards and prioritizing the development of standards for other pollutants.”

Richard Lanyon, Director of Research and Development, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

This also is a PRIMARY Illinois River Complex Problem

“The current study, however, suggests that ammonia is no longer the primary contaminant of concern, but rather non-polar organics, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, are the primary cause for toxicity in the Illinois River Complex (IRC).”


This is a Chicago River problem too

Based upon the results of the data the following conclusions are made:

  • PAH concentrations, especially in the South Branch of the river are elevated and potentially present an ecological and/or human health threat;
  • PAHs, oil and grease, dioxins and furans and PCBs are the primary contaminants of concern, with metals a secondary contaminant of concern, identified in the sediments throughout the Chicago River system;


Social Justice

The nation’s largest land owner, the US Department of the Interior, has a different, but accurate take on the problem of coal tar sealant pollution: it can be an injustice to the nation’s poor through their cultural or subsistence use of our natural resources.

The US Department of the Interior (DOI), the parent department overseeing the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation, has control over more than 25% of the United States land area and includes enough roads to circle Earth more than 8 times. They are also the overseer department of the United States Geological Survey, which has done scientific research into this area.

Brown bullhead (Ameiurus nebulosus) from Ashumet Pond, Cape Cod, 
Massachusetts, with body-surface and oral lesions from USGS.

In a report released in March 2012 (report link), the DOI has begun to fulfill a federal requirement to address possible adverse impacts to minority or low-income communities. Their vision statement says the goal is “to provide outstanding management of the natural and cultural resources entrusted to us in a manner that is sustainable, equitable, accessible, and inclusive of all populations.”

Coal tar sealant pollution injustice is mentioned as part of Goal #3:
The Department will, on its own or in collaboration with partners, identify and address environmental impacts that may result in disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority, low-income, or tribal populations.

The report acknowledges coal tar sealant pollution in urban centers across the US, but specifically mentions the Anacostia River in and around Washington, DC. Here some species, like the bullhead catfish pictured above, have cancer at a rate of 2 out of every 3 fish and therefore are not recommended to eat. Only 8 ounces per month is recommended for large mouth bass! If this was your only affordable protein source, you can see how this negatively affects the poor.

Illinois streams are no exception. They are among the most polluted by coal tar sealers known in the United States!


If coal tar sealers were an economic necessity, then perhaps we should still use them. But even from an economic or business perspective their use should be eliminated.

Here are 5 reasons why,

1. Lowes and Home Depot Stopped Selling Coal Tar Sealers Based Upon a Business Model

In 2007, I worked with the City of Austin team advising 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 there 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 your community or business? Who would continue to use a product that has a sound replacement and reduces liability?

2. Regulations are for Bad Actors, Not Good Ones

A few years ago it became apparent that a line of Samsonite luggage had high PAHs in the handles of their suitcases. What did they do? Deny it? Deflect the attention away from it?

No they tested their products and recalled 250,000 units and fixed the problem. No government intervention at all.

That is not what the coal tar industry has done.

You can read more about it here: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/samsonite-recalls-tokyo-chic-suitcases-amid-cancer-fears-over-handles/

3. The True Costs of Coal Tar Sealers are Less than the Benefits

The State of Minnesota estimated cost for the 3.3 million people in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area to clean up after coal tar sealer contamination was over $1 billion! The cost of cleaning it up is many times greater than the value of the installed product in the first place!

Here’s another example. The City of Austin was encouraged by the State of Texas to clean up a small drainage swale which had been contaminated by coal tar sealers from a single apartment complex near Barton Springs Pool. The cost, complete with workers in moon suits because of the high PAH concentrations, was about $500,000! This was for a single parking lot drainage.

This does not include the cost of undesirable health outcomes (cancer, decreased fertility, poor birth weight and IQ caused by the chemicals which are in potent quantities in coal tar sealers). 
A Baylor toxicologist said cancers from coal tar sealers likely affects a large number of Americans and they don’t even know it. 

Let’s talk about the cost of cancer. According to the American Institute of Cancer Research
, the nationwide cost of cancer is $900 billion dollars. The proportional cost, based solely on population, to a city like San Antonio would be $4.5 billion.

Wouldn’t business leaders want to reduce overall health and community costs?

4. Paving Experts Recommend Against Using Coal Tar Sealers

The liabilities of using coal tar sealers on commercial parking lots are so great that a guidance manual for commercial properties issued this warning in their hardback book, Guide to Pavement Maintenance:

It also isn’t recommended for the longevity of an asphalt surface by the main proponents of asphalt paving, The Asphalt Institute. It has been found to actually degrade asphalt by allowing moisture to build up between the two materials.

5. Prospects are Good for Sealer Industry in the US Even Without Coal Tar

A market research company recently confirmed what one CEO of a sealer company said a few years ago: bans really won’t hurt the sealcoat business.

In the projected period through 2024, the industry is expected to experience “moderate growth” but “rising bans on coal tar-based sealers, the improved performance of asphalt-based sealers, and competitive pricing are expected to result in the increased consumption of bitumen and asphalt sealers…”



The coal tar sealer industry has clearly demonstrated a lack of transparency and positive action to curb the exposure of the public and the environment to these toxins.

In fact, the coal tar industry leaders recently said that there is “no risk” in using their products.

On February 24, 2017 the Daily North Shore (Illinois) published an opinion piece by the coal tar industry trade group entitled, “Sealcoating Ban Lacks Research.”

The industry, namely the Pavement Coatings Technology Council, makes a slough of false statements in their letter (regarding health, business, testing) but let’s focus on their core claim:

“When RTS [“refined tar sealer” industry’s pet name for coal tar sealer] products are properly applied, they pose no health or environmental risk to the community”

What evidence does the industry have to make such a statement? NONE, it is completely baseless.

It reminds me of what the Winnetka Councilmember said during their ban discussion:

“What we’ve heard from the industry ….is the same thing that I heard as a lawyer from the tobacco industry & asbestos industries.

Instead of presenting us with studies showing this material is safe, they criticize studies that show it’s harmful.”

Here are the facts: the negative effects of coal tar sealers have been positively shown on fish, frogs, and salamanders in both the laboratory and in nature by multiple governmental and university researchers in the US, Canada and France. It has even been analyzed down to the DNA of aquatic organisms and shown that 100 to 1 dilutions damage DNA and the repair mechanisms to fix the damage.

We are talking about a substance in potent quantities on driveways that is a known human carcinogen, causes birth defects and triggers asthma. There is an abundance of risk with this product.

One coal tar company recently got a “cease and desist” letter from the EPA about making false claims about their product.

There are additional problems with the coal tar industry’s lack of candor about their product. Here are some links to several stories covered on Coal Tar Free America:



Coal tar sealers fail to meet fundamental consumer protection standards. My hope is that decision-makers acknowledge this and take it from commonplace to out of the marketplace.