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Daily News Archive
From March 15, 2002

"Recycled" Utility Poles and Railroad Ties Contaminate Homes Around the Country

Becky Crouse, public education coordinator at Beyond Pesticides, dug up this photo (see this week's Photo Story) of her childhood home in Albany, NY, which is surrounded by "recycled" utility poles and railroad ties. Note the pentachlorophenol- (penta) treated utility poles that serve as a clothesline and a walkway through the garden, and the raised garden beds made from creosote-treated poles. Although it can't be seen in the photo, the driveway and sandbox were also lined with utility poles. These toxic timbers were donated by local utility companies who had taken them out of service. Penta and creosote have been linked to a large number of health problems including cancer, birth defects, kidney and liver damage, disruption of the endocrine system and death. In fact, a child exposed on an ongoing basis to the soil around a penta-treated utility pole has a chance of getting cancer that is 220 times more likely than normal.

In 1999, Beyond Pesticides released Pole Pollution, a report that featured the results of a survey that was sent to utility companies around the country. One of the most disturbing findings of the survey is what appears to be the standard utility industry practice of giving away or selling used chemically treated wood utility poles to the public, which are eventually used around homes, schools, playgrounds and ball fields. Over 68 percent of the utilities dispose of poles in this way. This practice exposes the public to serious hazards associated with handling, sawing and using the contaminated wood. Despite this widespread practice, EPA does not currently consider this exposure in its risk calculation. Apparently, the agency assumes that the activity does not go on. One utility, Western Resources in Topeka, Kansas actually received an award in 1999 from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for donating and converting discarded treated wood poles into such things as bird boxes and outdoor classrooms.

Citing government inaction to protect the nation's children from exposure to widely-used and highly toxic wood preservatives, Beyond Pesticides along with other environmental and public health groups have recently petitioned EPA to immediately stop the continued use of the chromated copper arsenate (CCA), pentachlorophenol (penta) and creosote. Two petitions, which were filed on December 21, 2001 and a third filed on February 22, 2002, state that EPA has sufficient data on wood preservatives' health and environmental risks and the economically viable alternatives to initiate cancellation and suspension proceedings, rather than conduct further reviews. CCA and penta are linked to a large number of health problems including cancer, birth defects, kidney and liver damage, disruption of the endocrine system and death. In fact, two of the components of CCA, arsenic and chromium (VI), are classified as known human carcinogens. Penta, classified as a probable carcinogen and a known endocrine disruptor in its own right, is contaminated with dioxins. For more information, visit the wood preservatives web page.