report documents the fact that the use of treated wood utility poles
poses serious threats to health and the environment. The contributing
industries are among the most hazardous, polluting, and under-regulated
in the world. Furthermore, there are safer, less polluting alternatives
readily available. The reason these alternatives are not used is
plainly that every regulatory agency involved promotes the dangerous
and polluting choice over the safer and environmentally sound choice,
reinforcing the status quo in the marketplace.
regulation of investor-owned utilities has given incentives for
utility companies to choose an option that does not save rate payers
money or protect their health and safety, but increases the profits
of the investors. That option, in the case of utility poles, is
choosing wood poles whose price increases on a regular basis. Economics,
in the sense that most people view it, is contrary to the best interest
of regulated investor-owned utilities.
fails to apply its mandate to the regulation of wood preservatives.
Risks to workers using wood preservatives are unreasonable in the
extreme --with cancer risks in the range of one in ten or higher.
And those are the known risks. As with most pesticide formulations,
the identity of the bulk of wood preservative products --called
"inert," but biologically active, and labelled trade secret--is
kept secret from the people who are exposed to them. However, in
the case of wood preservatives, the problem is much worse. Even
the identity of the active ingredients (that portion of the formulation
that attacks the target pest) is unknown --and unknowable-- to EPA.
Wood preservatives are literally toxic soups of unknown composition.
However, it is known that some of the ingredients cause cancer,
birth defects and genetic damage. There is strong evidence that
other ingredients cause these effects as well. Yet EPA's regulation
consists mainly of voluntary safety practices, urging industry to
voluntarily provide information to consumers.
addition, EPA fails to perform its duty under the Resource Conservation
and Recovery Act to regulate the disposal of wood preserving wastes
and treated wood in a way that protects the environment. Through
a combination of delays and specially-created loopholes, the agency
has allowed these dangerous wastes to be disposed of in the most
dangerous ways possible.
it is generous to say that regulators have allowed these bad things
to happen. In fact, they have encouraged them. All of these regulatory
practices have established a system of incentives that promote the
use of treated wood poles over more environmentally friendly alternatives.
If wood preservative manufactures were forced to control the manufacturing
process to create a known product, and perform adequate tests on
these products, then their products would become more expensive.
If EPA considered alternatives beyond other (unknown) wood preservative
chemicals, and weighed risks as heavily as it does corporate profits,
then most wood preservatives would be banned. Even if EPA failed
to regulate wood preservatives as pesticides but placed adequate
consumer warnings on products and regulated the hazardous wastes
produced by the industry as hazardous wastes, wood preserving would
become too costly to perform on such a large scale.
on the other side, we have seen that one alternative to treated
wood poles has been made more hazardous by EPA's action. EPA encourages
the incineration of hazardous wastes in cement kilns, leading to
the dispersal of those wastes in the environment (but especially
in the neighborhood of cement kilns and ready-mix plants) and the
contamination of concrete products.
are more lessons to be learned from this examination of treated
preservative chemicals provide an excellent example of why risk
assessment is doomed to fail in protecting human health. Each of
these formulations --penta, creosote and copper chromated arsenic--
is composed of a number of toxic ingredients --sometimes by design,
sometimes by happenstance. Unlike most pesticides, though, we happen
to know something about the interactions of some of the ingredients
in wood preservatives, and we know that the effects are synergistic
--the potency of the combination is greater than the sum of the
effects of the individual ingredients. Risk assessments performed
on individual ingredients cannot predict the effects of the entire
formulation when ingredients are synergistic.
Chemical management over prevention
have seen that utility regulators and EPA combine to promote the
use of utility poles treated with toxic chemicals. The regulatory
agency is overwhelmed with vested interests that are financially
tied to the status-quo. The public interest mandate is lost to the
special interests. Regulators do not look around in an effort to
promote reasonable approaches that prevent the very problems we
are always trying to control fruitlessly. In so doing, government
does not provide a climate for innovation and ecologically sound
alternatives because it promotes existing practices that pollute.
When combined with a regulatory agency that habitually underestimates
risks and assumes benefits based on regulatory politics rather than
scientific practice, the net effect is a powerful incentive to use
pesticides to eradicate instead of ecology to mitigate pest problems
--all at a cost of dispersing powerful toxic materials throughout
The nexus for change is in communities across the country
a failed regulatory system co-opted by politics and special corporate
interests, the focus of action must shift to local communities and
the marketplace in which utility companies operate. On a basic level,
the line staff people interviewed for this report are becoming aware
of the hazards associated with treated wood poles. Many have begun
to consider alternative pole materials. But the process of change
must be more widespread and at a pace that suggests a greater understanding
of the urgency surrounding the environmental degradation and human
health effects of wood preservatives. The public can and must lead
the way as EPA puts critical health and safety questions on the
proverbial backburner. There is enough evidence in this report and
in the extensive list of resources cited to justify a swift and
concerted effort to phase out the purchase and use of preservative-treated
What community groups can do:
Keep at it.
Persistence pays off.
your local utility and arrange for a meeting with the chief
the findings of this report.
a formal request that the utility consider and adopt a policy
to stop purchasing treated wood poles and begin purchasing the
for a formal response by a specific date.
a community drive for the changes you are requesting.
a petition to community and civic organizations, through religious
institutions, school groups and local environmental and social
groups to generate support for changes.
local leaders, such as politicians, clergy, educators and others.
potential wood preservative problems in your community or nearby
the local media (newspaper, television and radio) about the
campaign and your concerns.
a public forum and invite the community and engage the utilities
in debate on the subject.
Beyond the need for local action, the public should make government
work on its behalf.
regulatory process must change to represent the public interest.
Contact the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters to
let environmental officials know that you are dissatisfied with
the level of protection provided by the agency. [Write Carol Browner,
Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 401 M Street,
SW, Washington, DC 20460]
EPA that you are concerned about the continued use of these hazardous
wood preservatives, that these chemicals should be removed from
the market and that the situation calls for the following policy
changes to prevent the agency's continued failure to regulate chemicals
as hazardous as these:
mixtures of pesticides for which EPA cannot identify the constituent
ingredients, their contaminants and breakdown products.
all chemicals on the product label, as well as contaminants and
THE USE of risk assessments, especially in cases where the
agency does not have full information on the product ingredients,
contaminants and break down products and their cumulative, aggregate
and synergistic effects.
an analysis of the nonchemical alternatives for the pest management
issues related to the pesticide registration in question. If safer,
cost-effective (taking into account long-term and secondary costs)
are available, stop the use of the pesticide, finding that its
hazards are not reasonable in light of the availability of alternatives.
NEGOTIATING with the chemical industry and compromising health
and safety and environmental protection for voluntary industry
action, like the wood preservative action, that does not protect
for public right-to-know when and where pesticides are being used
and where they are contained in other products, such as wood products.
Require posting and notification and advance warning before and
when pesticides are used.
PROMOTE nonchemical solutions to problems and stop using terms
like pesticide risk reduction and Integrated Pest Management without
clear definitions and quantitative measurements for what will
be accomplished to protect public health and the environment.
Join with the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides
informed about what you can do on an ongoing basis to protect yourself,
your family and community from hazardous pesticides and promote
safe alternatives. Contact NCAMP at:
701 E Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003