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Coal Tar - Psoriasis, Dandruff, Pavement Sealer and Cancer Risk

Updated on January 17, 2016
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with a first class honors degree in biology. She writes about human biology and the scientific basis of disease.

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 | Source

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. 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.

Coal seams (the darkest layers) in Germany
Coal seams (the darkest layers) in Germany | Source

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, or PAHs

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

Most of us are exposed to PAHs when we eat food that has been cooked at high temperatures, such as by being roasted or fried, or when the food is smoked. PAHs also enter our bodies from air which is contaminated by emissions from factories, power plants and the tailpipes of cars. Now researchers are saying that far larger amounts are being released from pavement sealers 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 asphalt or toys that have become contaminated. Children (and adults) may also inhale the dust or dangerous fumes released from the asphalt.

The structure of pyrene, one type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon
The structure of pyrene, one type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon | Source

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 represent chemical bonds.

Pavement Sealant and the Environment

Pavement sealant 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 sealant is commonly used in the central, eastern and southern parts of the United States, while an asphalt based sealant tends to be used in the western United States. Pavement sealants are sometimes known as sealcoat products. Sealants 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 (a substance that is capable of causing cancer).

Sealant Dust

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

Effect 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 fish. In addition, they may be the cause of tumors that have formed in fish living in water contaminated by coal tar dust.

A USGS Scientist Describes PAHs

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Pavement Sealer

There are different types of PAHs. At least some are mutagenic, which means that they cause mutations, or changes in genes. They are also teratogenic since they damage embyros 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. However, in recent years 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 recently discovered facts about PAHs in coal tar pavement sealant, according to the United States Geological Service.

  • Two hours after a coal tar sealant 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 14 to 25 times higher in houses next to a parking lot covered with coal tar sealants, or in houses with a driveway coated with a sealant containing coal tar, compared to the dust in houses near unsealed parking lots and driveways. The increased concentration of PAHs is also more than twice the usual dose obtained from the diet.
  • Coal tar sealants contain about 1000 times more PAHs than asphalt based sealants do.

Coal Tar Sealant Dust and Contamination

Possible Dangers of PAHs

Is the higher concentration of PAHs in the environment near pavement sealant 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 sealant is increased. Someone who spends their whole life near the sealant is estimated to have a 38% increase in cancer risk. Someone who spends only the first six years near the sealant 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 sealants containing the substance.

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 | Source

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. However, 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. Scientists haven’t noticed any increase in the incidence of cancer in people who use coal tar skin creams.

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 Problem of Coal Tar in the Environment

We know that frequent exposure to a high concentration of coal tar is associated with an increased risk of cancer in humans. What we don't know is the maximum concentration and exposure frequency that is harmless. Apparently coal tar skin creams and shampoos are safe. What about PHCs from coal tar in the environment? These are likely dangerous. It seems like a good idea to reduce our exposure to coal tar and PHCs as much as possible.


Health risks of coal tar pavement sealcoat from the USGS (United States Geological Survey)

Coal tar pitch dangers from the New Jersey Department of Health

Ban on pavement sealant in Austin, Texas from the ACS (American Chemical Society)

Coal tar ointment information from the Mayo Clinic

© 2012 Linda Crampton


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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, asdasd.

    • profile image

      asdasd 4 years ago

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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 5 years ago from Florida

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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      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?

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      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 !!!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • JSParker profile image

      JSParker 5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      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.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

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

      I Voted up