Coal tar industry fights bans on sealants
When officials in suburban Des Plaines read about the hazards of spreading cancer-causing coal tar on playgrounds, parking lots and driveways, they moved to join other communities across the nation that have banned pavement sealants made with the industrial byproduct.

A City Council committee ordered staff to research the issue, drafted an ordinance to outlaw the widely used products and recommended its passage. Aldermen cited federal, state and academic studies showing that coal tar sealants contain high levels of toxic chemicals, steadily wear off and crumble into dust tracked into houses and washed into waterways.

But the coal tar industry was ready for a fight. After Austin, Texas, in 2005 became the first U.S. city to ban coal tar sealants, industry leaders formed a tax-exempt lobbying group and started funding their own research — all in an effort to convince homeowners and elected officials that coal tar sealants are safe.

Industry representatives have cited their studies in presentations arguing that bans on coal tar sealants would do little to eliminate toxic chemicals in the environment. Promotional materials from contractors and manufacturers say the papers show that government studies are flawed, or "lies" as one brochure describes them.

"My members don't want to sell a product that causes harm," Anne LeHuray, executive director of the Pavement Coatings Technology Council, the industry lobbying group, said in an interview.

The industry's efforts have worked in some cases. Since 2010, cities including Des Plaines and Springfield, Mo., and the states of Illinois, Michigan and Maryland have rejected coal tar-related legislation after LeHuray and local contractors intervened.

"It seemed too confusing," said Patricia Haugeberg, a Des Plaines alderman who moved to table the Cook County suburb's proposed 2011 ban.

In a February presentation to contractors, a top industry representative boasted that they are beating government scientists "on their own turf."

Yet a Tribune review of the two industry-funded studies published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in recent years found they fall short of proving their authors' contention that coal tar sealants pose few, if any, threats to human health and wildlife. And, the Tribune found, the industry has at times overstated the findings supporting coal tar.

Manufacturers promote coal tar pavement sealants as a way to extend the life of asphalt and brighten it every few years with a fresh black sheen. The products are most commonly used in states east of the Continental Divide; in the West, contractors tend to use asphalt-based sealants that contain significantly lower levels of worrisome chemicals.

Coal tar sealants contain up to 35 percent coal tar pitch, partially refined waste from steelmaking that the National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer consider a known carcinogen. Among the chemicals of concern in the products are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which not only pose a cancer risk but can trigger developmental problems and impair fertility, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Peer-reviewed studies by government scientists have found that coal tar sealants are a major source, and sometimes the dominant source, of PAH contamination in urban areas. Other sources of the chemicals include vehicle exhaust and factory emissions.

In response to the growing body of federal research and regulatory pressures, the coal tar industry turned to a pair of consulting firms frequently hired by corporations dealing with environmental, health or safety issues — Exponent Inc. and Environ International. The industry-funded papers, published in a minor journal called Environmental Forensics, contend that coal tar sealants are at best a minor source of pollution.

The Exponent study, for instance, concludes that vehicle exhaust and industrial pollution are far bigger sources of PAHs than coal tar. But the finding is largely based on an older scientific model that does not include coal tar sealants as a potential source, leading the researchers to conclude that PAHs in the environment "can be explained in the absence of any contribution" from pavement sealants.

Kirk O'Reilly, an Exponent senior scientist and the study's chief author, said government researchers have overstated their conclusions and failed to consider "the large body of literature" about the chemicals. The government research, O'Reilly said in email response to questions, "does not prove that sealers are a source."

But at the end of his paper, O'Reilly acknowledges that coal tar sealants "cannot be eliminated as a PAH source."

The Environ International study, meanwhile, tested whether PAHs declined in Austin after the city's 2005 coal tar ban took effect. In a 2010 paper, the researchers reported they found that little had changed 21/2 years later, and industry representatives continue to cite the study as evidence that banning their products would not reduce PAHs in homes and waterways.

But coal tar pavement sealants weren't used in some areas where sediment samples were collected, including roadways and parking lots built after the Austin ban took effect, according to the text of the study. Austin also didn't require existing coal tar to be stripped from pavement, meaning many potential sources of pollution remained after the ban.

The researchers state that it could take more than two years to determine whether the Austin coal tar ban worked. One of the most dangerous PAHs, benzo(a)pyrene, is federally listed as a persistent chemical like DDT and PCBs, which were banned during the 1970s but took years to decline in the environment.