Chemical wood preservatives
account for the single largest pesticide use in the United States
and perhaps the greatest pesticide threat to public health and the
environment. The hazards associated with these chemicals and the use,
storage and disposal of the preservative-treated products are unnecessary,
given that alternative materials to treated wood are available for
many uses. Wood preservatives--used to extend the life of wood products
that are subject to fungus, insects and decay-- and their contaminants
are found in hundreds of hazardous waste sites across the country.
They are subject to expensive cleanup efforts by government and the
very industries that continue to introduce them into the environment
at a rate of nearly one billion pounds a year.
focuses on wood preservative-treated utility poles --a problem that
could be reduced significantly and eventually eliminated through
the adoption of alternative pole materials and approaches. It is
estimated that there are between 80 and 135 million wood utility
poles in the U.S., with at least three percent, or three million
of these, replaced every year.1
But there is
more to the story than the pole that meets the eye on the street
or in many backyards. The conventional wood pole leaves a trail
of poisoning and contamination from cradle to grave, beginning with
the forestry practices used to grow the trees, to the production
of the chemicals, to the wood treating facility, to the installation,
use, storage and disposal of the treated wood.
fact that wood preservatives are some of the most deadly, ubiquitous
and persistent chemicals known to the human race, the producers
of these chemicals, treaters of the wood and end users of the treated
wood products have all fought successfully to limit restrictions
over a two-decade period beginning in the late 1970's. As a result,
wood preservatives account for over one-third of the two billion
pounds of pesticides used in the U.S. on an annual basis, according
to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).2 This number, however,
may vastly underestimate the actual amount of wood preservatives
used because EPA relies on wood preserving industry data that does
not include all facilities. Taking into account all wood preservative
solutions and solvents, over 1.6 billion pounds of wood preservatives
were used in 1995, accounting for more pesticide use than all other
pesticide uses combined.3
The major wood
preservatives, including pentachlorophenol (penta or PCP), creosote,
and arsenicals, are ranked among the most potent cancer agents,
promoters of birth defects and reproductive problems, and nervous
system toxicants. They contain chemicals that in other contexts
are labeled hazardous waste because of the dioxin, furans and hexachlorobenzene
contaminants that are found in them. Penta is used to treat 45 percent
of wood poles in the U.S. Treatment of utility poles represents
93 percent of the remaining uses of pentachlorophenol. After crossties,
poles are the largest wood product still treated with creosote.
Forty-two percent of wood poles are treated with inorganic arsenicals
and 13 percent are treated with creosote.4
The sole purpose
of these chemicals is to preserve by killing living organisms. Because
they easily move in air, water and soil, they threaten human life.
In addition to causing both short- and long- term health effects
-- from extreme irritation to nerve damage to spontaneous abortions
to death, penta and creosote are linked to disruption of the endocrine
system. This means that they can disrupt the basic messages of life,
affecting sexual traits, fertility, reproduction and the functioning
of the nervous and immune systems. These estrogen mimics have been
linked to breast cancer and prostate cancer. Regarding environmental
impacts, these chemicals contaminate the soil, leach into groundwater
and move through the air. Because of these effects, in many contexts
the use of these chemicals is severely restricted or banned in the
U.S. Twenty-six countries around the world have prohibited the use
poles are used in virtually every community in the U.S. Nearly 12
percent of all wood preservatives are used to treat utility poles.5
The rest is used on lumber and timber, plywood, fence posts, crossties
and switch and bridge ties. In most cases, the poles, soaked in
wood preservatives, are placed adjacent to property lines, or in
backyards, front yards and playgrounds.
or telephone poles coated with a dark brown or oily substance --penta
or creosote-- give off a petroleum odor. Other poles appear lighter,
sometimes greenish, in color with no odor. These are treated with
arsenicals. To maintain preservation of a pole over time, they are
often pumped full of fresh chemicals, especially at the base where
the wood meets the soil.
There are at
least 795 wood preserving plants in the U.S.6 Hundreds of sites
across the country are listed on the National Priority List under
the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund7 program because
of contamination with pentachlorophenol, creosote and arsenicals.
These sites are identified by the federal government as representing
a serious risk to human health and the environment in the communities
where the chemical has been produced or used. EPA has slated these
sites among those with the highest priority for cleanup. In the
U.S.8 and Canada, 9 pole storage sites, as well, have been identified
also tells of government inaction, of long delays dating back nearly
20 years, and of political pressure from the chemical and wood preserving
industry, which generates $3.65 billion in gross sales annually.10
When EPA concluded its benefits assessment of these chemicals in
1986, the agency limited its evaluation to alternative chemicals.
However, EPA disregarded cost competitive alternative materials
and has no plans to revisit its benefits analysis. It was the benefits
analysis and finding of "non-substitutability"11 of wood preservatives
that allowed EPA to rationalize continued public and environmental
exposure. Today, despite being the largest pesticide use, EPA has
put wood preservatives on the backburner because it does not fall
under its high priority food use pesticide category.
While the environmental
and public health problems associated with wood preservatives escalate
and government fails to adequately regulate these highly toxic substances,
the annual utility pole replacement rate of over three million poles
is generating a disposal problem that can not be controlled.
purchasers of wood poles are utility and telephone companies. In
the U.S., there are 3,013 utility companies of which 198 are Investor
Owned Utilities (IOUs), 1,818 are Municipal Utilities (MUNIs), 922
are Rural Electrification Associations (REAs) and 75 are Public
Power Districts (PUDs). 12 The IOUs, smallest in number, are the
largest in size and therefore the largest purchasers of poles.
A dramatic shift
away from the dependency on toxic wood preservatives is long overdue.
This report looks at a range of alternatives to treated wood poles,
principally steel, concrete, fiberglass, and burying lines and the
competitive costs of each. There is also the possibility of utilizing
other types of wood that are naturally resistant.
utilities urgently need to begin a transition toward utility poles
made of alternative materials. The commonly used chemicals and treated
wood products discussed in this report leave a toxic trail from
manufacture, to use, storage and disposal that is unacceptable because
of its public health and environmental consequences. This report
questions the U.S. utility industry's reliance on some of the most
hazardous toxic chemicals known to humankind when alternative materials
for utility poles are available. In the past, the argument has been
made that there are no economically viable alternatives to chemically-treated
wood poles. This study finds that this position is not valid.
Across the land,
we have allowed the creation of mini-toxic waste sites through a
lack of foresight and perhaps incomplete knowledge of the environmental
and human health consequences of the use of toxic chemicals. Under,
around, in and on every preservative-treated utility pole is a toxic
site that poses a real threat to clean air, water and land. At that
site sits dioxin, furans and hexochlorobenzene which create an unacceptable
and unnecessary hazard to public health and the environment. It
is time to stop adding to the poisoning and contamination problem.
This can be done through the utilization of alternative pole materials.
In the end, it is unreasonable to perpetuate the toxic threat of
wood preservatives when alternatives are available.
play a central role in either continuing or stopping the poisoning
and contamination of the environment, their communities and ultimately
their customers. Utility companies in the U.S. and worldwide can
and should take a new path and look for safer alternatives to chemically-treated
to Findings | Contents
| On to the Toxic Trail