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Daily News Blog

10
Mar

As the World Bans Highly Toxic Wood Preservative, Pentachlorophenol, a Low-Income U.S. Community May Be Home to the Last Production Plant

UPDATE: The same day Beyond Pesticides published this piece, Gulbrandsen Chemicals announced it would drop its effort to produce pentachlorophenol in Orangeburg, SC, according to The State newspaper.

(Beyond Pesticides, March 10, 2020) Orangeburg, South Carolina may be the last place in the world to produce one of the most toxic pesticides known to humanity, pentachlorphenol. Despite a global ban on “penta” in 2016, in force in 186 countries, the United States has continued to import and use this hazardous wood preservative on telephone poles and railroad ties throughout the country. Now, with Mexico set to close one of the last production plants in the world, Gulbrandsen Chemicals Inc. wants to make Orangeburg, a majority black community with a population three times the U.S. poverty rate, the new epicenter for penta manufacturing.

Overview and History

Penta is used to pressure treat wood, with the aim of prolonging its use in utility poles and railroad ties. Beyond Pesticides has sounded the alarm on penta and other wood preservatives for over 20 years, starting with the reports Pole Pollution and Poison Poles, which outlined the science on the hazards and and alternatives to preservative-coated utility poles. Penta is a particularly concerning wood preservative, as it is well known to be contaminated with hexachlorobenzene, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, and furans. Acute contact exposure through contact or inhalation with penta-treated products can result in severe irritation. Chronic risks include damage to organ systems like the liver and kidney, as well as impacts on immune, nervous, and endocrine system functioning. EPA reviews previous classified penta as a probable carcinogen, however its Integrated Risk Information System recently classified it as “likely to be carcinogenic.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that at least 1 in 1,000 workers are likely to develop cancer during their career at a penta production plant.

Regulation of penta began in the late 1970s, when EPA identified extraordinarily high risks to human health. Penta, along with other wood preservatives, were subject to a Special Review, during which EPA considers product efficacy data (not considered during a standard registration review, which assumes product benefits), but does not adequately consider the availability of nontoxic alternatives. As a result of sustained industry pressure on the agency, EPA soft-pedaled its review to focus on “risk-reduction measures,” rather than meaningful regulations. It ultimately removed residential uses, such as treated lumber, but allowed widespread community exposure through treated utility poles and railroad ties. However, curtailed uses and personal protective equipment requirements does not adequately address significant levels of dioxin contamination. Instead of imposing strict limits of one part per million, EPA in the late 1980s negotiated with the chemical’s manufacturers to permit a phase down to two parts per million over several years. Despite decades of time to improve in production processes, current EPA documents show hexachlorobenzene and dioxin remain at hazardous levels of contamination in penta treated wood (19.3ppm and .55ppm average in 2013).

Beyond Pesticides sued EPA in the early 2000s over its inaction on penta, urging the agency to cancel and suspend the registrations of all toxic wood preservatives on the market. Although the suit received a preliminary injunction, it was ultimately struck down by a District Court judge based on administrative issues, not the merit of the case. Since then, EPA has continued to skirt responsibility to address this highly hazardous chemical. In one notable instance, penta review documents from EPA calculated a 2.2 in 10,000 cancer risk to children playing around treated poles. This rate was 200 times above EPA’s acceptable cancer threshold. But rather than protect children, EPA simply removed the exposure scenario for children and echoed a claim by the Penta Council, an industry group, that “play activities with or around pole structures would not normally occur.”

Stockholm Ban

While EPA continues to drag its feet, an international treaty, called the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, was brought into force. Parties to the Stockholm Convention are bound to eliminate the use and production of hazardous chemicals voted on by member countries. The U.S. is glaringly absent from this treaty, signing it in 2001, yet never ratifying it through the Senate. According to the U.S. State Department, “The United States participates as an observer in the meetings of the parties and in technical working groups.” Indeed, despite not signing the treaty, the U.S. was intimately involved in opposing a proposed ban on penta when discussions began at a United Nations committee in 2014.

Despite opposition from the U.S. and India, which is a minor producer of the chemical, the Stockholm Convention voted to impose the strictest ban possible on penta, beginning in 2016.  This set a clock ticking on the last North American penta plant, located in Matamoros, Mexico. Mexico was granted a five year exemption from the treaty in order to provide time to shift production. With 2021 fast approaching, the plant’s owner, Cabot Microelectronics, announced it would stop manufacturing the chemical in order to comply with the Stockholm Convention. Around the same time, Gulbrandsen Chemicals Inc., a company that lists its headquarters in South Carolina, but appears to have ties to India, announced it would bring a production plant to Orangeburg.

Orangeburg’s Future

The U.S. has long been the largest consumer of penta, and as a result has an intimate history with the the chemical’s manufacturing process. Hundreds of Superfund sites throughout the country are designated as such because they were the location of previous penta production plants. According to research Beyond Pesticides conducted in Pole Pollution in the late 1990s, roughly 250 sites on the Superfund National Priorities list were contaminated with penta.

An article in South Carolina’s The State newspaper, laying out information on the history and hazards with penta, brought about a swift response from some South Carolina’s lawmakers. Shortly after the article published, State Representatives Russell Ott and Gilda Cobb Hunter introduced a joint resolution to place a moratorium on the production of penta in the state. “It gives us time to get a better understanding of what this is,’’ said Representative Ott, a lawmaker whose district intersects with Orangeburg, to The State. He continued, “Clearly it has been banned in over 150 countries. We want to give everybody an opportunity to have their say, but in the meantime, this places a moratorium on the production.’’

Local politicians are concerned that the chemical could disproportionately affect the community’s poorest residents. “I certainly am not interested in Orangeburg County being the home of manufacturing a chemical that has the kind of detrimental effects I’ve read about,’’ said Representative Cobb-Hunter, whose district lies in planned production site. Reports indicate the site would be close to a retirement community and an assisted living facility.

When asked for comment, Beyond Pesticides emphasized that a delay was not enough. “It’s encouraging to see state lawmakers step in to delay the opening of a new penta plant in South Carolina, but the fact is, it never should have been considered in the first place,’’ the organization said in a statement to The State. “Pentachlorophenol production in South Carolina would harm workers, poison the surrounding environment, and set Orangeburg up as a future Superfund site. The rest of the world has already moved towards alternatives.’’

Steel, concrete, and composite alternatives to hazardous wood preservatives yield a lifespan of 80 to 100 years. Borates have been an effective alternative as well. When considering alternatives, it’s important to understand the differences in maintenance costs associated with different materials. Wood preservatives are likely to require re-treatment, 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 continue to grow, while steel can be recycled. Communities may also choose to bury their utility lines if conditions are appropriate.

Penta has no place in the 21st century and it is abhorrent for the United States to continue to embrace the use of this hazardous, highly contaminated wood preservative. Residents in South Carolina can track the progress of the temporary penta ban through this link and are encouraged to write their lawmakers to support and strengthen this ban into permanence. For more information on the toxicity and history of penta, see Beyond Pesticides’ Wood Preservative program page.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: The State (1, 2)

 

 

 

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One Response to “As the World Bans Highly Toxic Wood Preservative, Pentachlorophenol, a Low-Income U.S. Community May Be Home to the Last Production Plant”

  1. 1
    Diana Ames Says:

    This is a bit off topic, but I have been looking for information about how new, treated lumber used for backyard fences might adversely impact pollinators as the chemicals leach into the soil. Along the same lines, I am concerned about plants near a utility pole soaking up harmful chemicals from the creosote treated wood. Would plantings meant to attack pollinators near such treated lumber be counterproductive? I would hate for something meant to be beneficial to turn out to cause more harm. I would greatly appreciate any information you can share.

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