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Daily News Blog

09
Mar

EPA Proposes Cancellation of Highly Toxic Wood Preservative Pentachlorophenol (“Penta”)

(Beyond Pesticides, March 9, 2021) Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced an interim decision to cancel of one of the most hazardous pesticides still used in the United States, pentachlorophenol (penta). Although long overdue, health advocates are hailing the agency’s action, taken due to significant risks to human health, the availability of alternatives, and the uncertain future of penta production. Many advocates hope that EPA’s announcement is the start of a pivot to science-based decision-making in the best interest of health and the environment, not the pockets of pesticide industry executives. Cancellation of this toxic chemical will bring  the U.S. into conformance with the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty to ban persistent organic pollutants (POPs) joined by over 150 countries that was never ratified by the U.S.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “After decades of scientific reports, lawsuits, regulatory comments, and an international ban, we’re glad EPA finally acknowledged the intrinsic dangers posed by continuing penta’s registration. We urge the agency expedite its slow cancellation timeline so that we can finally eliminate this unnecessary pollutant.”

Produced for its ability to preserve wood through pressure treatment, penta has been used on utility poles and railroad ties since the 1930s, before U.S. pesticide law was written. In the 1950s it was registered for a range of pesticidal uses in addition to wood treatment, including as a fungicide, herbicide, insecticide, algaecide, disinfectant, and ingredient in antifouling paint. It’s uses as a catch-all pesticide began to be restricted in the mid-1980s as EPA identified a range of acute and chronic risks from exposure, and significant contamination of penta products with hexachlorobenzene, furans, and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, one of the most toxic substances known to humankind.

Although most uses of penta were eliminated in the 1980s, its application as a wood preservative remained. Beyond Pesticides sued EPA in the early 2000s over its prior inaction on penta, urging cancellation of all toxic wood preservatives on the market. The case received a preliminary injunction was but ultimately struck down by a federal District Court on administrative grounds.

While some assume that wood treatments are unlikely to pose a risk to the general public, as stationary poles can simply be avoided, that is not the case. As part of a previous risk assessment, EPA calculated a 2.2 in 10,000 cancer risk to children playing around treated poles – a rate 200x above the agency’s cancer threshold. This calculation was removed from the agency’s analysis after a pressure from the Penta Council, with its revision indicating that, “play activities with or around pole structures would not normally occur.” Despite this claim, there’s no doubt many U.S. residents to recall a time they played around a utility pole or railroad tie as a child.

While children remain at risk from penta exposure, the individuals who produce penta and apply it to utility poles are subject to the greatest harm. Yet over the years, EPA consistently attempted to avert risks through changes to its risk evaluation, rather than file cancellation proceedings. In its most recent 2008 penta review, the agency attempted to reduce occupational exposure by requiring additional personal protective equipment, changes to application procedures, and engineering controls. However, in making its final determination last week, EPA indicates these risks remain. The agency identified both long-term inhalation and dermal exposure risks, and calculated that workers had an astounding 1 in 1,000 risk of developing cancer from working in a penta plant.

“In weighing the benefits of pentachlorophenol versus the risks identified in the DRA (Draft Risk Assessment), EPA cannot make the finding that the benefits of pentachlorophenol outweigh the risks,” the agency wrote in its determination.

In addition to the dangers posed by penta production, EPA also notes in its decision the availability of alternative chemistries in the wood preservative market. Some of these products, like copper chromium arsenate, pose similar concerns to penta, but non-toxic products like steel, concrete, and fiberglass are also available. “EPA believes that transitioning away from pentachlorophenol in favor of other imperfect alternatives may pose certain challenges; however,” the agency writes, “given the uncertain future of pentachlorophenol’s availability in the wood preservative market as discussed below, as well as a transition time to adapt alternative wood preservatives, the utility pole preservative industry will be able to adapt to the cancellation of pentachlorophenol.”

EPA also discussed the “uncertain future of pentachlorophenol production” as impacting its decision to cancel. This uncertainty was precipitated by a decision made at the Stockholm Convention in 2016, in opposition to the U.S. delegation, which fought against penta’s listing in that international treaty as a Persistent Organic Pollutant (despite the fact that the U.S. is not a signatory). This listing resulted in the last North American penta plant, located in Mexico (a signatory to the treaty), announcing its closure. That put pressure on the remaining U.S. plants that apply penta to utility poles; as a result, plants in both Oregon and Alabama plan to close by the end of this year. Canada also announced it would cancel penta’s registration this year in order to put the country in line with the Stockholm Convention.  

That left the U.S. as the last possible spot where a new penta plant could be sited. Gulbrandsen Chemicals, a multinational company with ties to India, made an attempt to supply the U.S. market by proposing a penta plant in the majority low income African American community Orangeburg, South Carolina, raising serious concerns over environmental racism. But a series of high-profile investigative reports, community advocacy, and political action ultimately upset the plans laid by this corporation, and Gulbrandsen Chemicals withdrew its proposal early last year.  

EPA’s proposal would phase out penta production over the next five years, a timeline advocates say should be sped up. “Given the unacceptable hazards posed by this chemical, and wide availability of alternatives on the marketplace today, there should be no reason to install another penta-poisoned pole in the United States ever again,” said Drew Toher, community resource and policy director at Beyond Pesticides. “We thank EPA for its effort to align with the Stockholm Convention, and encourage the agency to continue making science-based decisions.”

Beyond Pesticides has extensive documentation on the history of penta production and regulation. For more information see the following articles:

See Beyond Pesticides Wood Preservatives webpage

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

Source: EPA Proposed Interim Registration Review Decision

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