PAH Found in Asphalt Sealing Said to Place Children at Cancer Risk

A new study confirms that asphalt sealant contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), the same ingredient that is found in oil and causes cancer.

Coal tar is not necessarily an ingredient used everywhere in the US, but it persists mostly in the eastern portion of the US and is used on parking lots and driveways. According to Barbara Mahler, “people like it because it makes the asphalt look like new. The striping shows up really clearly if you have a parking lot” (“Common Asphalt Sealant May Raise Cancer Risks”). While the sealant makes the asphalt in your driveway and parking lot look nice, it also rises in the air as dust when driven over by cars and trucks. The dust is said to get on shoes and clothes, and spreads through the air into your respiratory system and on your hands and other physical limbs. Children, who are most likely to play outside for long periods of time, have an increased exposure and risk because of the time invested outdoors around the toxic asphalt sealant. The rain washes the sealant into water pipes, sewers, and wells — infecting water pipes and drinking water (that makes its way into home and building water and shower faucets).

The Environmental Science & Technology Journal study examined dust from the homes of 23 apartments located near coal tar parking lots in Austin, Texas. Out of the 23 apartments and dust samples tested, half of the apartments in question were located near sealants, while the others were not. The dust samples were then compared to parking lots in New Hampshire and Chicago that had coal tar sealants (as well as some that did not). The study showed that the risk of exposure is a whopping 38 times greater for children who live near driveways and parking lots containing sealant than children who live in places that lack the sealant.

The asphalt sealant contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the same ingredient found in oil. Depending on the size of the parking lot and driveway, parents could place their children at risk to the equivalent of a cancer risk for those exposed to a minor oil spill. With every 1 million people, researchers expect to have 110 cancer cases among children. Of the cancer risk (38 times the exposure for children who live near sealed pavement), 50% of this exposure risk occurs in the first six years of a child’s life. Eighty percent of child risk occurs before the age of 18. Similar to asbestos, most children experience the effects of sealed pavement exposure and PAH later in life.

There is a type of asphalt, emulsified asphalt, that contains lower levels of PAH than coal-tar sealant. Bare asphalt also contains lower levels of PAH than coal-tar asphalt.

American Cancer Society (ACS) biostatistician Kenneth Portier provides a summation of the Environmental Science study: “Really, what this analysis says is that there’s potential harm here. There is risk. What does it mean for me? Maybe I should try to avoid that risk. And especially avoid the risk in my children” (“Common Asphalt Sealant May Raise Cancer Risks”).

The studies show that exposure increases the risk of cancer, but it does not show a direct, causal link between exposure and cancer contraction. The same can be said for asbestos: while individuals are exposed to asbestos that is contained in tiles, floor walls, ceilings, and in home basements, every person exposed to these household items do not contract mesothelioma later in life. There are some individuals who smoke their entire lives but never contract lung cancer or emphysema. In the same way, there are many children who play near coal-tar asphalt but do not contract cancer later in life. As with all cancer studies, other environmental and genetic factors (such as heredity) play a role in cancer contraction.

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