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Coal Tar, Pavement Sealer, and PAHs: Facts and Potential Dangers

A bituminous coal seam in Canada; photo by Michael C. Rygel via Wikimedia Commons

A bituminous coal seam in Canada; photo by Michael C. Rygel via Wikimedia Commons

What Is Coal Tar?

Coal tar is a thick black liquid produced as a by-product when coal is processed. It’s a mixture of thousands of different substances, which haven’t all been identified. Its composition varies and depends on the way in which the coal is processed. For many years, coal tar preparations have been used to treat skin and scalp problems such as psoriasis, seborrheic dermatitis, dandruff, and eczema. They’re also frequently used in pavement or driveway sealers.

For some time, scientists have strongly suspected that certain components of coal tar can cause cancer or other health problems in specific circumstances. The quantities of tar used in commercial products were thought to be too low to produce any problems, however. Recent research suggests that the amount of coal tar in pavement sealer could be a health risk. Pavement sealer is also known as sealant and sealcoat.

Coal seams (the darkest layers) in Germany

Coal seams (the darkest layers) in Germany

Coal is a natural substance that is processed into other materials. It's made from the bodies of ancient plants that have been altered by the heat of the Earth and the pressure created by overlying sediments.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Coal tar contains chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. The chemicals consist of fused rings that each resemble a benzene molecule. They are produced when substances that contain carbon undergo incomplete combustion. This process occurs when there isn't enough oxygen to turn all of the carbon into carbon dioxide. Some PAHs are thought to be carcinogens (chemicals that have the potential to cause cancer) and may be dangerous under certain conditions.

Most of us are exposed to PAHs when we eat food that has been cooked at high temperatures, such as by being grilled, roasted, or fried, or when the food is smoked. The chemicals also enter our bodies from air that is contaminated by emissions from factories, power plants, and the tailpipes of cars. Cigarette smoke and wood-burning stoves and fireplaces are other sources of PAHs. Forest fires and volcanoes also release the chemicals. We may not be able to completely avoid the substances, but we may be able to reduce our exposure to them.

Researchers say that PAHs are released in large quantities from pavement sealer containing coal tar and are transported in vapor and dust. The dust is especially dangerous for young children, who frequently put their hands into their mouths. They may ingest the dust after touching sealer or toys that have become contaminated. Children and adults may also inhale the dust or dangerous fumes released from the sealer.

The structure of pyrene, one type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon

The structure of pyrene, one type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon

PAHs are hydrocarbons, which means they contain only hydrogen and carbon atoms. Different PAHs contain a different number of rings. The black lines in the rings shown above represent chemical bonds. Double lines indicate the presence of two bonds. Atoms are located at each corner of the rings.

Pavement Sealer and the Environment

Coal Tar Sealer

Pavement sealer containing coal tar is sprayed on parking lots and driveways to protect them and to give them a dark black color, which many people like. It's sometimes applied to playgrounds as well. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a coal tar sealer is commonly used in the central, eastern, and southern parts of the United States, while an asphalt sealer tends to be used in the western United States. Sealers based on coal tar generally contain 20% to 30% coal tar pitch, which is the material that remains after coal tar is distilled. Pure coal tar pitch is considered to be a carcinogen.

Asphalt Sealer

Asphalt is generally a mixture of stones, sand, and a substance known as asphalt cement, which is made from petroleum. Someone interested in the asphalt composition in their area should do some research. The word "asphalt" sometimes has a different meaning, and the material sometimes contains PAHs.

Sealer Dust

A coating of coal tar sealer isn't permanent. In fact, the manufacturers often recommend that it's reapplied regularly at one to five year intervals, depending on the product. Dust is released from the sealer due to abrasion by vehicle tires. Rain then washes it into soil or storm drains. The dust eventually reach ponds, rivers, or lakes. It's also blown by wind or enters homes on the soles of shoes. In addition, it's transferred to new areas on vehicle tires or by snow removal. Coal tar fumes are released from the sealed pavement in a process called volatilization.

Effects on Aquatic Life

Dust containing coal tar is toxic to aquatic life. It settles in the sediments at the bottom of lakes and rivers and can kill or injure amphibians and invertebrates, especially aquatic insects. It may also interfere with their reproduction. The dust is especially dangerous for creatures that live in the bottom sediments.

Coal tar dust is thought to be responsible for stunted growth in aquatic amphibians and for movement difficulties in the animals. Even fish are affected by an increase in PAH concentrations. PAHs cause cataracts, liver, and immune system problems in the animals. In addition, the chemicals may be the cause of tumors that have formed in fish living in water contaminated by coal tar dust.

Anyone who has questions about coal tar or PAHs in the environment should consult a scientist who studies the topic and/or a physician. People who work in occupations where they might be exposed to the substances should use safety equipment and follow safe procedures.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Pavement Sealer

There are different types of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. At least some are mutagenic, which means that they cause mutations, or changes in genes. They are also teratogenic because they damage embryos and cause birth defects. Some PAHs have been identified as probable carcinogens.

Until recently, although some scientists were concerned about our exposure to PAHs, it was generally thought that their concentration in the environment was too low for them to be a major health threat to humans. In recent years, however, researchers in the United States have noticed that the level of PAHs in urban lakes has increased, sometimes by a large amount, which has stimulated their interest in the chemicals.

Here are some facts about PAHs in coal tar pavement sealer, according to the United States Geological Service.

  • Two hours after a coal tar sealer has been applied to pavement, the release of PAHs into the environment from the pavement is 30,000 times higher than the release from unsealed pavement.
  • Release of PAHs from sealed pavement that is three to eight years old is 60 times higher than the release from unsealed pavement.
  • The concentration of PAHs in house dust is 25 times higher in houses next to a parking lot covered with a coal tar sealer compared to the situation in houses near unsealed pavement.
  • The concentration of the chemicals in house dust is 14 times higher in homes with a driveway coated by a coal tar sealer compared to the situation in homes with unsealed pavement.
  • The increased concentration of PAHs mentioned above is more than twice the usual dose obtained from the diet.
  • Coal tar sealers contain about 1,000 times more PAHs than asphalt-based sealers do.

The video below was created by the Superfund Research Program at Oregon State University. The program is designed "to identify polycyclic aromatic carbons in the environment, to characterize their toxicity, and to determine what levels of those chemicals in the environment are safe for human health."

Possible Dangers of PAHs

Is the higher concentration of PAHs in the environment near pavement sealer causing an increased incidence of human cancer? Will it do so in the future, since cancer often takes time to develop after exposure to a carcinogen? If the PAHs are carcinogenic, what dose and exposure time are needed to produce cancer? Scientists don't have the data needed to answer these questions definitively, but they strongly suspect that the PAHs are dangerous.

The USGS says that the estimated lifetime cancer risk for people living near pavement sealer is increased. Someone who spends their whole life near the sealer is estimated to have a 38% increase in cancer risk. Someone who spends only the first six years near the sealer is estimated to have a 25% increase in cancer risk. Some communities are sufficiently concerned about the safety of coal tar that they have banned the use of pavement sealers containing the substance.

Polycyclic hydrocarbons can appear in some unexpected places. Creosote that is made from coal tar contains PAHs and is a substance that should be treated with caution. Naphthalene is a specific PAH that is found in some mothballs and is linked to health concerns for humans.

Coal Tar in Skin Creams and Shampoos

Coal tar has been a popular treatment for skin conditions such as psoriasis for more than a hundred years, yet it's still not clear how it works. Psoriasis is a disorder characterized by red, itchy, thickened, and scaly patches on the skin. Coal tar reduces inflammation and itching and is absorbed into skin cells. Here it's thought to interfere with DNA replication and slow down cell division, reducing skin thickening.

Coal tar skin cream and shampoo are also used to treat seborrheic dermatitis. This condition is known as dandruff when it occurs on the scalp and cradle cap when it occurs on the scalp of young children. Seborrheic dermatitis is an inflammatory condition in which white or yellow flakes are shed from oily areas of the skin. The skin may also be red and itchy. Coal tar creams are sometimes used to treat eczema as well.

A 1922 advertisement for coal tar soap

A 1922 advertisement for coal tar soap

Wright's coal tar soap is still sold and still has its original name, but it no longer contains coal tar. Some other products with "coal tar" in their name contain a synthetic chemical instead of a coal tar derivative.

Safety of Coal Tar Creams and Liquids

It’s known that in industries or jobs which involve frequent exposure to high levels of coal tar there is an increased incidence of several types of cancer. It's important to realize that this doesn't prove that the tar caused the cancer. Coal tar medications, which contain much lower concentrations of the tar, generally aren't considered to be dangerous. They are somewhat controversial, though, since we don't know the exact composition of the tar or exactly how the medications work.

As far as I know, scientists haven’t noticed any increase in the incidence of cancer in people who use coal tar skin creams and shampoos. The Illinois Department of Public Health recommends that people decrease their use of the products, however, as indicated in the last reference below.

Coal tar skin preparations may stain clothing and temporarily stain skin and hair. They may also make the skin more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation, so people who use coal tar shampoos or skin creams should be very careful about sun exposure. The creams can be helpful, but some people find that they irritate the skin.

Health Concerns

Scientists suspect that frequent exposure to a high concentration of coal tar is associated with an increased risk of cancer in humans. What they don't know is the maximum concentration and exposure frequency that is harmless.

Coal tar skin creams and shampoos may be safe when used correctly, for a short time, and in small quantities. What about PAHs from coal tar in the environment? These may cause health problems or may even be dangerous if they are sufficiently concentrated.

The Illinois Department of Health includes the following information on their website.

The health effects that can be caused by exposure to PAHs depend on:

  • how much has entered the body,
  • how long you have been exposed to PAHs, and
  • how the body responds to PAHs.

The department also says that long term exposure to the chemicals may cause "cataracts, kidney and liver damage, and jaundice."

Though some exposure to the chemicals may be unavoidable, it seems like a good idea to reduce our exposure to coal tar and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as much as possible. Hopefully, scientists and medical practitioners will soon learn more about the substances and their potential effects. For now, it seems sensible to avoid them as much as possible.


  • The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon investigation at Oregon State University (This is an informative and useful website created by scientists investigating PAHs.)
  • Coal tar pitch dangers from the New Jersey Department of Health (A PDF document)
  • Ban on pavement sealant in Austin, Texas from the ACS, or the American Chemical Society
  • Facts about air pollution and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, or the NIEHS
  • Information about PAHs and coal tar in pavement sealant from the USGS, or the United States Geological Service
  • Coal tar ointment information from the Mayo Clinic
  • Facts about coal tar cream from WebMD
  • Details about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons with respect to our health from the Illinois Department of Public Health

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on July 24, 2013:

Thank you for the comment, asdasd.

asdasd on July 24, 2013:

The blog is quite awesome that has provided me the best knowledge.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 09, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, votes and tweet, Peggy. Yes, I think that coal tar in the environment is definitely something that we should be concerned about!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 09, 2012:

Another thing of which to be concerned! If it is making its way into streams and causing mutations in aquatic life...then we turn around and often eat the fish from those is no wonder that whether it comes from the air we breathe or the foods we eat, that cancer seems to be a never ending threat. Thanks for this health alert regarding the use of coal tar. Useful, interesting and will tweet.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 24, 2012:

Thank you for the comment, mary615. I appreciate your visit!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on February 24, 2012:

Very informative Hub. I never knew coal tar was so dangerous. Thanks for all this great info

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 24, 2012:

Hi, drbj. Thanks for the comment. Yes, coal tar is a worry, especially in areas where it’s in widespread use, as it is in your area. Thankfully most roads today have an asphalt surface instead of one made from coal tar - although I haven't investigated the safety of asphalt!

drbj and sherry from south Florida on February 24, 2012:

Yet another substance to be concerned about, Aicia, thanks to your careful research and published information. In my area, roads, highways, parking lots and driveways are continuously being repaved with coal tar pavement sealants. Who knew the potential dangers?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 23, 2012:

Hi Tom. Thank you very much for the comment and the votes. Yes, we need to be very careful with coal tar! Dilute preparations are considered to be safe, but concentrated ones are potentially dangerous.

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on February 23, 2012:

Hi Alicia, Great important and useful information, thanks for making everyone aware of the health concerns. I had no idea that coal tar had any health risks .

Awesome and vote up !!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 23, 2012:

Thanks for the visit and the useful information about your experience with psoriasis, JSParker.

JSParker from Detroit, Michigan on February 23, 2012:

I have used a coal tar application for psoriasis, and I can vouch that it did help although not totally heal my skin. Fortunately, I have a mild case. Sunshine and sea water are a more pleasant remedy.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 23, 2012:

Hi teaches12345. Yes, exposure to environmental PAHs is something to consider. We may not know how harmful they are for some time. The problem is that if they are harmful we need to limit our exposure now.

Dianna Mendez on February 23, 2012:

This is very interesting and educational. I also am curious as to the testing for safety of coal tar. The emissions from unsealed pavement may be a cause for concern in some areas where the concentration is higher such as parking lots. People who work 8-10 hours per day in these areas may have a higher exposure to the toxins. Thank you for posting this information that gives one something to consider.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 23, 2012:

Hi, Debbie. Thanks for the comment and the vote, and for sharing the hub!

Deborah Brooks Langford from Brownsville,TX on February 23, 2012:

Good Morning. Thank you for all this information. I am forwarding it on to my friend on Facebook

I Voted up