(Beyond Pesticides, May 18, 2015) Delegates from more than 90 countries took the unprecedented step of voting last week for a global ban on pentachlorophenol (penta) — a proven toxic pesticide and contaminant found in wildlife and human biomonitoring studies worldwide. The historic vote came at the combined meetings of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions — which usually make decisions by consensus — after India repeatedly blocked action. The U.S. is not a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, which provides the framework to moving persistent organic pollutants out of commerce.
During the meeting, India surprisingly rejected the findings of the Stockholm Convention’s own scientific expert committee in which it participated. Switzerland triggered the voting procedure — the first in the history of the convention. Ninety-four countries voted in favor of global prohibition of pentachlorophenol; two opposed; and eight countries abstained.
“We commend the global community for this important decision which will help ensure that the Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic and the traditional foods on which they depend are protected against toxic pentachlorophenol,” said Pamela Miller of Alaska Community Action on Toxics. The delegates of the Stockholm Convention also supported international bans on two other industrial chemicals that harm the global environment and human health: chlorinated naphthalenes and hexachlorobutadiene. Delegates at the Rotterdam Convention failed to list two deadly substances, chrysotile asbestos and a paraquat formulation, despite the fact that exporters would simply have been required to notify and get permission from importing countries. Belarus, Cuba, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Russia all opposed listing chrysotile asbestos. Guatemala, India, Indonesia, and Paraguay blocked listing of the paraquat formulation.
“All the candidate substances meet the Convention criteria according to the treaty’s own expert committee,” said Mariann Lloyd-Smith, IPEN Sr. Policy Advisor. “That means that a small handful of opposing countries and their powerful industry representatives undermined the treaty with a political decision that disrespects governments’ right to know what substances are entering their borders. They simply put their own economic and trade interests before the health and well-being of the global environment and its inhabitants.”
Wood preservatives used to chemically treat wood utility poles contain dangerous chemicals, including dioxins, which harm human health and the environment. They are ranked among the most potent cancer agents. They are also promoters of birth defects, reproductive problems and nervous system toxicants. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assigned a cancer risk 3.4 million times higher than acceptable for people that apply penta to poles in the field. There are many, safer options for poles to be made of alternative materials, such as recycled steel, concrete, composite, or there is the option to bury the lines. The steel, concrete, and composite alternatives yield a lifespan of 80 to 100 years. There are differences in maintenance costs associated with different materials. For example, wood may require retreatment, which some utilities perform on a set cycle, while steel, concrete and fiberglass do not. In addition, disposal costs for chemicals used in wood treatment are high and growing, while steel is recycled.
New research on the chemical components of Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA) treated utility poles found that heavy rainfall, damp conditions and weathered poles leads to the highest rate of leaching, groundwater contamination and toxic chemical runoff. CCA is one of three major chemical wood preservatives that Beyond Pesticides has long sounded the alarm on, along with creosote and penta. The study, Leaching of Chromium, Copper, and Arsenic from CCA-Treated Utility Poles, was published in Applied and Environmental Soil Science in Canada. Researchers looked at the concentrations of Chromium (Cr), Copper (Cu), and Arsenic (As) in soils surrounding 26 Douglas Fir CCA treated utility poles. They also suspended a segment of a new CCA treated pole to study rainwater runoff. Of the three metals, they found that As was the most mobile in soil and prominent in water. The average soil concentrations of As at all distances from the poles exceeded the acceptable allowable limit, and the As concentration in water was 8 to 42 times the drinking water guideline limits. The study concluded that the use of CCA is cause for concern, as As could leach from treated timber, migrate to groundwater, and reach wells or ponds. These findings demonstrate that there is a possibility of leaching and groundwater contamination from other wood preservatives as well, such as penta and creosote.
Recognition of the hazards of wood preservatives has led to some reduction of use, but not enough. In the U.S., EPA has classified CCA, penta and creosote as restricted use products, for use only by certified pesticide applicators, and has banned the residential use, with some exceptions. However, the U.S. lags behind other nations in its restrictions. The EU has banned CCA and creosote treated wood completely, and twenty six countries, including Canada, currently ban penta completely.
Meanwhile, as the Stockholm Convention delegates met last week and affirmed the United Nation’s call for a global elimination of penta, the U.S. continues to allow the use of toxic wood preservatives with blatant disregard for human and environmental effects. The U.S., as mentioned above, is not a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, and is, in fact, the largest producer and user of penta in the world. U.S. government agencies such as the EPA have even sought to oppose efforts to ban the chemical. The U.S. has had a long struggle adhering to the guidelines put forth by the Stockholm Convention POPs committee. In 2009, the committee called for global action on a dangerous, DDT-era insecticide, and it took the EPA over three years to respond and finally begin phasing out the toxic chemical.
In absence of regulatory action at the federal level in the U.S., environmental groups and politicians have worked tirelessly to stop the use of these harmful chemicals. In early 2015, Beyond Pesticides submitted comments to EPA calling for the immediate ban of pentachlorophenol, and in 2014, a Long Island town began requiring warning labels on any poles treated with penta. Following that, state legislation was introduced to ban the use of penta in the future, and U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) called on EPA to investigate its specific use on utility poles.
For more extensive information about pesticide-treated wood for utility poles and railroad ties, see Beyond Pesticides Wood Preservatives program page, and read Beyond Poison Poles: Elected officials say no to toxic utility poles in their communities, from the Fall 2014 issue of Pesticides and You.
Join Beyond Pesticides’ Poison Pole Campaign. Take a photo of the ugly pole in your neighborhood, on your street, at a bus stop, in a park, or even at your local playground. If people walk, live or play near the pole, show that in the photo, if possible. Include your name and the location of the photo and send it to email@example.com.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.