ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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

Updated on July 13, 2018
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with a first class honors degree in biology. She often writes about 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. Pavement sealer is also known as sealant and sealcoat.

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. 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).

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 which is contaminated by emissions from factories, power plants, and the tailpipes of cars. Cigarette smoke and wood-burning stoves are other sources of PAHs.

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 | 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 shown above represent chemical bonds.

An Oregon State University Toxicologist Describes PAHs

Pavement Sealer and the Environment

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 (a substance that is capable of causing cancer).

Sealer Dust

A coating of coal tar sealer 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 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.

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.

Asphalt is a mixture of stones, sand, and a substance known as asphalt cement, which is made from petroleum. Pavement sealer may be either coal tar based or asphalt based.

A USGS Scientist Describes PAHs

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 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. 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 recently discovered 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 14 to 25 times higher in houses next to a parking lot covered with coal tar sealers, or in houses with a driveway coated with a sealer 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 sealers contain about 1000 times more PAHs than asphalt based sealers do.

Coal Tar Sealer Dust and Contamination

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.

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. Coal tar medications, which contain much lower concentrations of the tar, generally aren't considered to be dangerous, however. 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 creams can be helpful, but some people find that they irritate the skin.

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 PAHs from coal tar in the environment? These are likely dangerous. It seems like a good idea to reduce our exposure to coal tar and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as much as possible


Coal tar pitch dangers from the New Jersey Department of Health

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

Facts about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from Tox Town (an NIH or National Institutes of Health site)

Information about PAHs and coal tar in pavement sealant from the USGS (United States Geological Service)

Coal tar ointment information from the Mayo Clinic

© 2012 Linda Crampton


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, asdasd.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

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

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 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 

      6 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 imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      6 years ago from Florida

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

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 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 

      6 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 imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 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 

      6 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 imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • JSParker profile image


      6 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 imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 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 

      6 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 imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      6 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 

      6 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



    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)