Small Town Poisoned By the Wood Preservative Creosote
(Beyond Pesticides, February 26, 2004) The 29-acre site of Wood Treating Inc., a former creosote wood preservative plant in Picayune, Mississippi, is quietly under investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to become the state’s next Superfund clean-up site for creosote contamination, according to the town’s newspaper, Picayune Item.
Wood Treating, Inc. was established in Picayune in 1946 and used creosote to coat telephone poles, reports the town’s newspaper. According to the article, Jerry Banks of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality hazardous waste division described the company as having “’just ceased operations in 1999 and closed down and basically walked off and left the facility’” without cleaning up any of the waste, chemicals or holding tanks.
Although companies who contaminate sites are supposed to pay to clean them up, it appears from the article that the state and federal government will be burdened with the estimated millions of dollars to clean the site since the company has already gone out of business. It is expected that such exorbitant costs, which have already reached $2 million, will slow the pace of the clean-up.
Creosote is a highly toxic and hazardous chemical. Based on weighty evidence from occupational exposures and animal studies, the EPA rates creosote as probable human carcinogen with the potential to cause birth defects and adversely affect reproduction. It is also a possible endocrine disruptor that adversely affects hormonal function. According to the National Institutes of Health, animal studies of coal tar creosote have induced a wide array of malignant tumors in the lungs, mammary glands, and trachea as well as other carcinomas throughout the body.
"I remember as a child playing in ditches that ran from the plant that had a thick, black substance oozing from them that smelled like oil,” says a former resident of Picayune who asked to remain anonymous. “We were fairly poor, and of course no one ever warned us. In fact,” he added, “they’re still not warning us.” The black substance he described matches the description of coal-tar creosote, which is usually a thick, oily liquid, typically amber to dark brown in color.
The most common way for creosote to enter the body is through skin contact with contaminated soil, which is most likely to occur near facilities where the soil is not monitored and cleaned. Children are particularly vulnerable to chemical exposure both because they are more likely to come in regular contact with soil through play and because their internal organs and neurological systems are still developing.
Individuals living or working near wood preserving facilities are exceptionally susceptible to being exposed to surface water or groundwater. Creosote can enter the body through rapid absorption into the lungs as an air contaminant, through the stomach and intestines after ingesting contaminated food or drinking water, or through the skin after contact with treated wood or toxic byproducts.
The former resident, who returns frequently to visit family still living in the town, said that some people often wondered why miscarriages, cancers and brain tumors had “clustered around various neighborhoods” throughout the decades. He also added that there was talk about the 29-acre site being sold and converted into a housing development.
According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATDSR), "Hazardous waste sites are a major source of contamination with creosote." Brief exposures to large amounts of coal-tar creosote can cause harmful effects on the skin, eyes, nervous system, and kidneys. Signs of acute poisoning include salivation, vomiting, headache, dizziness, loss of reflexes, hypothermia, convulsions, and coma. Death can also occur as a result of multi-organ system failure.
Components in coal tar creosote that persist in soil and groundwater can take years to breakdown. Waste water and sludge from wood preserving facilities is known as a major source of creosote contamination in surface and groundwater across the country, particularly because companies that produce creosote-treated wood release the waste water to the municipal water treatment system.
Creosote made from coal tar is the most common type of creosote found in hazardous waste sites. Coal tar creosote, coal tar, and coal tar pitch have been found in at least 59 of the current or former sites on the EPA Superfund National Priorities List.
While new EPA restrictions have decreased the amount of creosote available to move into soil from wastewater effluents, this still represents the largest source of coal tar creosote in the environment. According to an ATDSR report, "Sometimes, the small amounts of chemical remaining in the soil or water that take a long time to break down are still toxic to some animals and possibly to humans."
In February 2002, Beyond Pesticides and fifteen national and statewide public interest groups filed a petition with the EPA to stop the reregistration of creosote for wood treatment and push for the suspension and subsequent cancellation of creosote. The heavy wood preservative is still under review by the agency, but a current "preliminary” risk assessment released by the agency describes excessively high worker risks and confirms health effects (including cancer) that have been known to the agency, the wood preservative industry, and the scientific community for more than 20 years. For more information on creosote and other heavy wood preservatives go to Beyond Pesticides’ Wood Program page.
TAKE ACTION: (1) If you are concerned about the handling of the clean up of the former creosote wood preservative plant in Picayune, MS, contact Leavern Guy, the City Councilman of the relevant Picayune district. A town hall meeting to discuss the issue is scheduled for today, Friday February 26, 2004. Contact the City of Picayune for more information.
(2) This problem and many like it could be avoided if the EPA would stop allowing the reregistration of heavy wood preservatives like creosote, pentachlorophenol and CCA for which safer alternatives exist. Please contact Mr. Micheal Leavitt, EPA Administrator, by email, phone: 202-564-4711, or fax: 202-501-1470 and let him know how you feel about the agency forcing our communities to bear the burden of excessive health risks and environmental contamination so that the wood preservative industry can continue with business as usual.