RACINE — A ban on coal-tar sealants widely used on asphalt surfaces, out of concern for public health and area waterways, is moving forward in the City of Racine.
Coal-tar and some other sealants are a main source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PAHs, which slough off the driveways and parking lots where they are commonly used.
The proposed Racine ordinance cites a US Geological Survey study which found that high-PAH sealants can become vapor that can be inhaled by humans and animals, and worn down into dust particles that can make their way into people’s homes. Studies have found that children who live near coal-tar sealant are at risk of accidentally ingesting the toxins.
The proposed ban would make it illegal to apply a high-PAH sealant, defined as any pavement sealant containing greater than 0.1% PAHs by weight. Clean Wisconsin’s webpage on coal-tar sealants recommends asphalt-based sealants instead, which have up to 1,000 times fewer PAHs.
It also makes it illegal for any property owner, commercial applicator or developer to either apply, or require an employee to apply, high-PAH sealants on any driveway, parking lot of other surface within the city.
At a presentation before the Public Works and Services Committee, Jon Richards from Clean Wisconsin and Lakeshore Natural Resource Partnership cited a Environmental Science and Technology scientific journal study that found that children who lived next to a coal-tar sealed pavement were 14 times more likely to develop cancer.
Richards also cited the American Medical Association, Children’s Hospitals of Wisconsin and Ascension Wisconsin Hospitals, which all state that coal-tar sealants are a risk to a children’s health.
Alderman Mollie Jones of the 2nd District asked Richards if the children’s cancer cases tended to be fatal. Richards was unsure but said he did know that PAHs tend to cause cancers along the digestive tract.
Richards said he could provide a list of alternatives, which are cost-comparable. One reason coal-tar has remained so common is because it is easier to dilute, making it less expensive, but exacerbates environmental concerns because when diluted it more easily flakes off.
City Engineer John Rooney told the committee that Department of Public Works research found two alternatives that fit the city’s needs.
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The committee voted to send the ordinance on to the City Council with a recommendation of approval.
“The No. 1 responsibility of local government is public health, keeping children safe,” said Alderman Trevor Jung of the 9th District. “So this is a good step to protect Racinians from a harmful substance.”
The next City Council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Aug. 20 at City Hall, 730 Washington Ave., in room 205.
Community by community
In 2010, Austin, Texas was the first city to ban coal-tar sealants, followed by Washington, which was first state to issue a ban in 2011. Since then, several states, including Minnesota, have followed Washington’s lead.
The bans have also shown to be effective. A study that measured PAHs in the waterways surrounding Austin, Texas, before and after the ban showed a precipitous drop once the ban was implemented.
Communities have also joined in the ban, with Dane County being the first Wisconsin community to issue a ban. Richards said that in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin, the approach has been community by community.
In early 2017, the City of Milwaukee banned the use of coal-tar and other high-PAH sealants. After the Milwaukee ban, Richards’ organizations have been focused on smaller communities bordering Lake Michigan.
In 2016, the U.S. Geological Survey released a study conducted in Milwaukee that found that coal-tar was the primary source of PAHs in the waterways. PAHs have been found to cause deformities, reproductive and other development problems, cancer and death for aquatic organisms.