At issue | Jan. 18 Chicago Tribune article on Kentucky.com, "New doubts cast upon safety of common driveway sealants"
In the article about refined tar-based sealants, the writer tells a story unrecognizable to those familiar with the history of the product, its environmental impact or relevant regulations. The relatively small business community involved in the sealant industry is astonished that anyone could think they are so powerful as to have pressured the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into anything, much less to have been successful.
The article focused only on incomplete — some would say biased — studies by one group of scientists even though results of other research are available. For example, the article failed to mention that a "before and after" study of the sealant ban in Austin, Texas, found no change in the environmental problem — ubiquitous compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — that the ban was promoted by activists to solve.
Of course, there's the question of whether Austin actually has a problem, as the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found no health risks related to PAHs in Barton Pool, mentioned prominently in the article. The article also failed to mention forensic analyses investigating whether sealants are an important source of PAHs in urban sediments, results of which do not agree with the premise that sealants are the dominant source of PAHs in Lake of the Hills, Ill., or other bodies of water in the U.S.
It is disappointing that a wider group of scientists was not interviewed in researching this story. Objective and thorough research might have revealed that the differentiation between PAHs in the eastern and western U.S. accepted as fact in the article is not supported by statistical analysis.
Additional inquiry might have informed the reader that the "scientific evidence" for the conclusion that sealant is responsible for increased PAHs in the eastern U.S., was nothing more than a conclusion based on the fact that more sealant is sold in the east than the west. The story further made unwarranted comparisons between sealants and waste materials from old coal gasification plants and referenced unrelated hazards experienced by 18th-century chimney sweeps in London. The article also failed to explain that concentrations that trigger Superfund clean-ups are set for each location based on conditions that prevail at each site and have no relevance to sealants.
A thorough discussion of PAHs should have included some mention of other, more dominant sources of PAHs — car exhaust, wood smoke and numerous other sources of combustion around us — as well as the fact that high concentrations of PAHs are present in medicinal products, such as dandruff shampoos and psoriasis and eczema treatments as well as in the hamburgers and vegetables we grill in our own back yards.
The absence of any effort to tell the complete story is a disappointing commentary on the state of so-called environmental journalism today.