(Beyond Pesticides, October 9, 2014) The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) released its 13th Report on Carcinogens, a science-based document that identifies chemical, biological, and physical agents that are considered cancer hazards for people living in the United States. While four substances were added, bringing the total list to 243, it is the addition of pentacholophenol (PCP) and its by-products that should raise eyebrows across the United States and perhaps even raise hopes of those fighting against the use of this dangerous chemical that it might be on its way out.
Added to the DHHS list as a substance “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” PCP is primarily used as a wood preservative in such items as utility poles, railroad ties, and fence posts. An organocholrine compound, the substances was first developed and used as a pesticide. Byproducts of PCP include dioxins. The reasons for the inclusion on the HHS list include findings that exposure to this mixture was associated with an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in studies in humans and caused tumors in the liver and other organs in mice.
The addition of PCP to the DHHS’s list comes as little surprise, after decades of advocacy efforts on the part of Beyond Pesticides and other environmental groups to persuade the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cancel PCP and other wood preservative registrations because of the known carcinogenic effects and adverse environmental impacts.
Health and environmental concerns spurred reviews of PCP by EPA as early as 1978, leading over the next several decades to its elimination in agriculture, indoor use and then residential restrictions. As recently as 2008, in EPA’s registration eligibility decision (RED) on PCP and other wood preservatives related to its continuing use in the treatment of utility poles, among other outdoor uses, the agency concluded, “In general, EPA has determined that the compounds contribute benefits to society and are eligible for reregistration provided the mitigation measures and associated label changes identified in the REDs are implemented and required data are submitted.” EPA went on to state, “In its risk assessments, the Agency identified risks of concern associated with occupational exposure (i.e., treatment plant workers) to all three [PCP, chromated copper arsenate, and creosote] preservatives and ecological exposure to pentachlorophenol and creosote.”
Even though wood for residential use may no longer be treated with these toxicants and the use has been classified as restricted, industrial uses (railroad ties, utility poles) continue to put workers and the public at risk. Occupational exposures in the making of treated wood products increase the risk of cancers in workers, and presence in the environment of the products expose wildlife and children to potential contamination through direct contact, runoff into soil and water, and inhalation.
The 13th Report on Carcinogens is prepared by the National Toxicology Program (NTP). NTP is a federal, interagency program, headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), whose goal is to safeguard the public by identifying substances in the environment that may affect human health.
“Identifying substances in our environment that can make people vulnerable to cancer will help in prevention efforts,” said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). “This report provides a valuable resource for health regulatory and research agencies, and it empowers the public with information people can use to reduce exposure to cancer causing substances.”
While the report doesn’t require EPA to take any action to address substances put on the list, it adds to the mounting pressure on industry and EPA to remove the toxic chemical from our environment and might further assist local efforts like those in New York to prevent its use.
Since the mid-1980s, Beyond Pesticides has done extensive work to address the risks of exposure to PCP and the other two heavy-duty wood preservatives, inorganic arsenicals (such as chromated copper arsenate, or CCA) and creosote. In addition to Pole Pollution, Beyond Pesticides also published Poison Poles, which examines the toxic trail left by the manufacture, use, storage and disposal of the heavy-duty wood preservatives from cradle to grave. On December 10, 2002, a lawsuit led by Beyond Pesticides was filed in federal court to stop the use of arsenic and dioxin-laden wood preservatives. The complaint asserted that the chemicals, known carcinogenic agents, hurt utility workers exposed to treated poles, children playing near treated structures, and the surrounding environments where products containing the substance were utilized. Most importantly, the lawsuit argued that viable alternatives existed and did not support EPA claims that societal “benefits” and necessity required continued registration. Unfortunately, the lawsuit was dismissed on procedural grounds.
The fight, however, continues. Join Beyond Pesticides and visit our Wood Preservatives webpage to learn more about the issue and what you can do to take this cancer-causing chemical out of the environmental and our lives for good!
Source: National Institutes of Health
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.