The production and refining of coal tar and its use in various other products involves a substantial risk of exposure to a group of chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).  Exposure to these substances can lead to a variety of diseases, including lung and other respiratory cancers, bladder cancer and skin cancer.  Harmful exposure occurs when the tar or refined products made from the tar are heated and give off dust and fumes, called coal tar pitch volatiles (CTPVs).

Laborers involved in the following job classifications are particularly at risk of developing cancer: 1. Coke oven workers; 2. Roofers handling coal tar pitch; 3. Laborers working in the production of pavement sealer and its application; 4. Factory workers involved in the production of carbon electrodes.

In the Buffalo area, there were three coke oven operations: the one at Bethlehem Steel, which was the largest; the Donner Hanna Coke Company in Buffalo; and Semet-Solvay in Tonawanda, now known as Tonawanda Coke and still in operation. Coke is produced by baking coal in an airless refractory oven. The baking process drives off the volatile content of the coal and leaves a residue of pure carbon, or coke. Coke is commonly used in the steel-making process both as a fuel and as an additive.

Laborers who worked on top of or alongside coke oven batteries were exposed to large quantities of fumes, dust and vapors containing carcinogenic CTPVs.  Topside jobs included the lid man, larry car driver, tar chaser, and maintenance worker; side battery jobs included the door cleaner and pusher man, among others. During an eight hour shift, for example, it was typical for one lid man to work on seventeen or eighteen ovens, spending at least fifteen minutes on top of each oven.

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Coal tar pitch is an amorphous residue produced by the distillation or heat treatment of coal tar, which is a by-product of coal when it is carbonized to make coke. Coal tar pitch was used in the construction of industrial and commercial roofing.  Exposure to fumes from hot coal tar pitch has been linked to lung, throat, skin, and bladder cancers. It was common practice during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s for roofing contractors to have their workers heat solid coal tar pitch in large kettles at construction sites.  The workers operating the kettles and those carrying pails of the hot pitch up to the roofing surfaces were heavily exposed to carcinogenic CTPVs. In the Buffalo area there were numerous contractors that engaged in these construction practices.

Medical and scientific communities have not established a “safe” level for exposure to CTPVs.

Coal tar sealer (or blacktop) is generally a mix of hot coal tar, clay and emulsifier.  Historically, coal tar sealer has been produced in both large and small scale facilities.  The manufacturing process involves exposure to fumes from hot coal tar, and the application process also involves exposure to CTPVs. There were a number of local manufacturers of coal tar sealer in the Buffalo area and several sources of the coal tar were used as the base for the final product.

Coal tar pitch is also used in the production of carbon electrodes, which transfer electricity to melt scrap iron and steel in electric arc furnaces. Carbon electrodes are made from coke after it is mixed with coal tar pitch and binders, including peanut oil. When the carbon electrodes are extruded and shaped, they are baked to carbonize the pitch and graphitized by heating to extremely high temperatures, which converts the carbon to graphite. When the electrodes leave the furnace, they are smooth and hard and no longer sticky with coal tar pitch residue. The graphitizing process generates significant amounts of toxic fumes and smoke. Factory workers who manufactured carbon electrodes were exposed to these toxins and can develop lung cancer and other respiratory cancers years after their initial exposure.  Carbide Graphite in Niagara Falls, New York, later known as Airco Speer or Speer Carbon, manufactured carbon electrodes for use in the steel-making industry.

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Older workers and retirees, who handled coal tar or coal tar pitch or were exposed to coke oven emissions, are at a significantly increased risk of developing respiratory cancer, including throat and lung cancer, as a result of work they performed twenty-five or more years ago. Cancers are latent diseases, which often do not develop for many years after initial exposure.

There is only one law firm in New York State with experience handling cases for coke oven workers, roofers, and coal tar sealer and carbon electrode production workers.  If you or a loved one is suffering from cancer that you believe may be related to coal tar pitch volatiles (CTPVs), please contact the attorneys at Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford, LLC, about filing possible legal claims.

This article appeared in the June 13th edition of the Buffalo Challenger: