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Wood Pesticide Still Used Despite Hazards

Jun 9, 2004 | Scripps Howard News Service

The hazards of human exposure to the popular wood preservative known as creosote from skin rashes to lung cancer are well known to government regulators and scientists.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency recognized creosote's perils in 1978, announcing its intention to phase out the coal-derived preservative's required registration.

That was more than 200 years after London physician Percival Pott's ground-breaking discovery of high cancer rates among British men who cleaned soot from chimneys.

Yet despite those well-documented risks, coal-tar creosote has been a timber industry staple for the past century. Each year, 825 million pounds of creosote are used to protect telephone poles, marine pilings and most of the nation's countless miles of railroad ties from wood-boring pests and foul weather, according to industry estimates.

When mishandled, it seeps into soil and groundwater. Its fumes permeate the largely poor and rural neighborhoods surrounding wood treatment plants. And its toxic chemical cocktail leaves behind a legacy of suspicious illnesses and premature deaths.

"These chemicals have been known to be hazardous," said Jay Feldman, executive director of Washington-based Beyond Pesticides, one of more than a dozen advocacy groups suing the EPA in an effort to stop the use of creosote. "We have a national problem with these contamination sites."

Coal tar creosote and two related wood preservatives have been found in at least 100 current or former sites on the EPA's Superfund National Priorities List or state contamination lists.

An industry besieged

In the nation's capital, the efforts by a dozen environmental and organized labor groups to ban creosote are part of a larger strategy to curtail two other popular wood preservatives, chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, and pentachlorophenol. Each are licensed as pesticides.

A quarter-century ago, the EPA announced its intent to not renew the three pesticides' registration.

But in 1984, health considerations took a back seat to monetary ones: the agency ruled that the absence of "economically viable alternatives" outweighed the risk to human health even as it chastised the wood preserving industry for relying on "bad science" to bolster its case.

On Dec. 31, 2003, a voluntary industry phaseout of CCA a staple of wooden playground equipment and backyard picnic benches took effect, removing those treated products from the marketplace but not addressing wood treated prior to that date.

Now opponents of wood preservatives are asking the courts to follow suit on penta and creosote.

Citing the federal agency's own data from 20 years earlier, environmentalists have lobbied the EPA since 1997 to not renew the required registrations. Tired of what they called foot-dragging by EPA, a 15-group coalition of environmental and labor groups filed suit in December 2002.

They cited a ban put in place last year on the sale and consumer use of creosote by the then- 15-nation European Union. The EU also ordered creosote manufacturers to significantly reduce the amount of benzoapyrene found in the wood preservative.

Feldman and his colleagues arranged meetings between federal regulators and business owners who had developed alternatives to treated wood products, including composite railroad ties made of plastics and other synthetic materials.

And they submitted scientific data showing how creosote destroys the lungs, burns the skin, shuts down kidneys and travels through the placenta into an unborn child's tissue.

Wood preservative opponents also have railed against what they consider an excessively collegial rapport between the government regulators and the industry those bureaucrats are paid to regulate.

Creosote industry leaders point to their own, industry-funded research to rebut the claims that the wood preservative in use for more than 130 years isn't safe.

Direct pipeline to the EPA notwithstanding, the five American companies that manufacture creosote and the countless smaller businesses that use it to treat wood are in many ways on their heels.

Faced with financial woes caused by a steady stream of lawsuits over health problems linked to CCA-treated playground equipment, the American Wood Preservers Institute, a leading industry advocate, shut its doors in late 2002.

That same year industrial giant Kerr-McGee - one of a handful of American creosote manufacturers and owner of six wood treatment plants - announced it was getting out of the wood products business entirely.

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