Battle brewing over Howard's plans to ban pavement coating linked to cancer

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

At least one Maryland-based coal tar sealant manufacturer is girding to battle Howard County’s efforts to ban the sale and use of certain coal tar and similar pavement sealants.

Tom Decker, who has been president of SealMaster-Baltimore, a coal tar manufacturer for the past 21 years, said he needs “somebody to tell me what the benefit is,” in banning the sealants.

“I breathe this stuff [coal-tar], I’ve had it on my skin, my head, my face, arms and legs … [and] I’m in pretty good shape, pretty good health,” Decker said.

Coal tar sealcoat, a thick, black liquid, maintains and protects driveways and asphalt pavement, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The sealant contains up to 35 percent of coal tar pitch, a carcinogen, according to the United States Geological Survey.

Councilman Jon Weinstein introduced legislation to ban coal-tar at a County Council meeting Tuesday night after a group of Centennial Lane Elementary fifth-graders presented their case for a ban to Weinstein, who represents Ellicott City where the school is located, in June.

Coal-tar sealcoat breaks down into a fine dust by vehicle tires and snow plows, which requires the sealant to be reapplied every 2 to 5 years. The dust becomes airborne and can contaminate stormwater, streams, lakes, soil and house dust, according to the United States Geological Survey.

When exposed to coal tar in an occupational setting, it is associated with an increase in skin cancer and other cancers such as, bladder, lung, kidney and digestive tract cancer have been linked with exposure, according to the National Institutes of Health. People can be exposed to coal tars in environmental contaminants or through use, as coal tar can be used to treat skin disorders, including eczema, dandruff and psoriasis.

Coal-tar sealants are banned in Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and Washington, D.C.

“These counties have banned it without any evidence … [and] scare people that they will get cancer,” if exposed to coal-tar, Decker said.

Decker previously testified against the ban in Anne Arundel County. When asked if he would testify against the potential ban in Howard County Decker said “I have to.”

“One of my problems is if they ban it in Howard County they will talk to Baltimore County and [if it’s banned] in Baltimore County there goes my business,” Decker said.

Most use of coal-tar sealants is on private property in Howard County, as the Department of Public Works does not use sealants. Alternatives to coal-tar sealcoat are paver systems, permeable asphalt and pervious concrete, according to the EPA.

“These sorts of bans [on coal-tar sealcoat] are solutions to problems that don’t exist,” said Anne LeHuary, executive director of the Pavement Coatings Technology Council. “I would challenge the [Howard] county to look at their data.”

The trade group advocates for the effective and safe use of pavement coatings. As a trade association, the council represents views of its members. In Maryland, the council represents GemSeal, SealMaster, and Seaboard Asphalt Products Company, all product manufacturers.

At the County Council’s upcoming legislative public hearing Sept. 17, the former Centennial Lane students are expected to testify in support of the ban and give their original presentation again, according to Gary Smith, a special assistant in Weinstein’s office.

“The students make a complete case for how this is a environmental safety and public health measure,” Smith said.

LeHuary said the students have “missed something in the research they have.”

“Kudos to the fifth -graders for doing the research but they did not get both sides of the story,” she said.

If the legislation advances , a vote could be as soon as Oct. 1.

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