Poison Poles - A Report About Their Toxic Trail and Safer Alternatives


Chemical wood preservatives account for the single largest pesticide use in the United States and perhaps the greatest pesticide threat to public health and the environment. The hazards associated with these chemicals and the use, storage and disposal of the preservative-treated products are unnecessary, given that alternative materials to treated wood are available for many uses. Wood preservatives--used to extend the life of wood products that are subject to fungus, insects and decay-- and their contaminants are found in hundreds of hazardous waste sites across the country. They are subject to expensive cleanup efforts by government and the very industries that continue to introduce them into the environment at a rate of nearly one billion pounds a year. 

This report focuses on wood preservative-treated utility poles --a problem that could be reduced significantly and eventually eliminated through the adoption of alternative pole materials and approaches. It is estimated that there are between 80 and 135 million wood utility poles in the U.S., with at least three percent, or three million of these, replaced every year.1 

But there is more to the story than the pole that meets the eye on the street or in many backyards. The conventional wood pole leaves a trail of poisoning and contamination from cradle to grave, beginning with the forestry practices used to grow the trees, to the production of the chemicals, to the wood treating facility, to the installation, use, storage and disposal of the treated wood. 

Despite the fact that wood preservatives are some of the most deadly, ubiquitous and persistent chemicals known to the human race, the producers of these chemicals, treaters of the wood and end users of the treated wood products have all fought successfully to limit restrictions over a two-decade period beginning in the late 1970's. As a result, wood preservatives account for over one-third of the two billion pounds of pesticides used in the U.S. on an annual basis, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).2 This number, however, may vastly underestimate the actual amount of wood preservatives used because EPA relies on wood preserving industry data that does not include all facilities. Taking into account all wood preservative solutions and solvents, over 1.6 billion pounds of wood preservatives were used in 1995, accounting for more pesticide use than all other pesticide uses combined.3 

The major wood preservatives, including pentachlorophenol (penta or PCP), creosote, and arsenicals, are ranked among the most potent cancer agents, promoters of birth defects and reproductive problems, and nervous system toxicants. They contain chemicals that in other contexts are labeled hazardous waste because of the dioxin, furans and hexachlorobenzene contaminants that are found in them. Penta is used to treat 45 percent of wood poles in the U.S. Treatment of utility poles represents 93 percent of the remaining uses of pentachlorophenol. After crossties, poles are the largest wood product still treated with creosote. Forty-two percent of wood poles are treated with inorganic arsenicals and 13 percent are treated with creosote.4 

The sole purpose of these chemicals is to preserve by killing living organisms. Because they easily move in air, water and soil, they threaten human life. In addition to causing both short- and long- term health effects -- from extreme irritation to nerve damage to spontaneous abortions to death, penta and creosote are linked to disruption of the endocrine system. This means that they can disrupt the basic messages of life, affecting sexual traits, fertility, reproduction and the functioning of the nervous and immune systems. These estrogen mimics have been linked to breast cancer and prostate cancer. Regarding environmental impacts, these chemicals contaminate the soil, leach into groundwater and move through the air. Because of these effects, in many contexts the use of these chemicals is severely restricted or banned in the U.S. Twenty-six countries around the world have prohibited the use of penta. 

Chemically-treated poles are used in virtually every community in the U.S. Nearly 12 percent of all wood preservatives are used to treat utility poles.5 The rest is used on lumber and timber, plywood, fence posts, crossties and switch and bridge ties. In most cases, the poles, soaked in wood preservatives, are placed adjacent to property lines, or in backyards, front yards and playgrounds. 

The utility or telephone poles coated with a dark brown or oily substance --penta or creosote-- give off a petroleum odor. Other poles appear lighter, sometimes greenish, in color with no odor. These are treated with arsenicals. To maintain preservation of a pole over time, they are often pumped full of fresh chemicals, especially at the base where the wood meets the soil. 

There are at least 795 wood preserving plants in the U.S.6 Hundreds of sites across the country are listed on the National Priority List under the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Superfund7 program because of contamination with pentachlorophenol, creosote and arsenicals. These sites are identified by the federal government as representing a serious risk to human health and the environment in the communities where the chemical has been produced or used. EPA has slated these sites among those with the highest priority for cleanup. In the U.S.8 and Canada, 9 pole storage sites, as well, have been identified as contaminated. 

This report also tells of government inaction, of long delays dating back nearly 20 years, and of political pressure from the chemical and wood preserving industry, which generates $3.65 billion in gross sales annually.10 When EPA concluded its benefits assessment of these chemicals in 1986, the agency limited its evaluation to alternative chemicals. However, EPA disregarded cost competitive alternative materials and has no plans to revisit its benefits analysis. It was the benefits analysis and finding of "non-substitutability"11 of wood preservatives that allowed EPA to rationalize continued public and environmental exposure. Today, despite being the largest pesticide use, EPA has put wood preservatives on the backburner because it does not fall under its high priority food use pesticide category. 

While the environmental and public health problems associated with wood preservatives escalate and government fails to adequately regulate these highly toxic substances, the annual utility pole replacement rate of over three million poles is generating a disposal problem that can not be controlled. 

The largest purchasers of wood poles are utility and telephone companies. In the U.S., there are 3,013 utility companies of which 198 are Investor Owned Utilities (IOUs), 1,818 are Municipal Utilities (MUNIs), 922 are Rural Electrification Associations (REAs) and 75 are Public Power Districts (PUDs). 12 The IOUs, smallest in number, are the largest in size and therefore the largest purchasers of poles. 

A dramatic shift away from the dependency on toxic wood preservatives is long overdue. This report looks at a range of alternatives to treated wood poles, principally steel, concrete, fiberglass, and burying lines and the competitive costs of each. There is also the possibility of utilizing other types of wood that are naturally resistant. 

Regulators and utilities urgently need to begin a transition toward utility poles made of alternative materials. The commonly used chemicals and treated wood products discussed in this report leave a toxic trail from manufacture, to use, storage and disposal that is unacceptable because of its public health and environmental consequences. This report questions the U.S. utility industry's reliance on some of the most hazardous toxic chemicals known to humankind when alternative materials for utility poles are available. In the past, the argument has been made that there are no economically viable alternatives to chemically-treated wood poles. This study finds that this position is not valid. 

Across the land, we have allowed the creation of mini-toxic waste sites through a lack of foresight and perhaps incomplete knowledge of the environmental and human health consequences of the use of toxic chemicals. Under, around, in and on every preservative-treated utility pole is a toxic site that poses a real threat to clean air, water and land. At that site sits dioxin, furans and hexochlorobenzene which create an unacceptable and unnecessary hazard to public health and the environment. It is time to stop adding to the poisoning and contamination problem. This can be done through the utilization of alternative pole materials. In the end, it is unreasonable to perpetuate the toxic threat of wood preservatives when alternatives are available. 

Utility companies play a central role in either continuing or stopping the poisoning and contamination of the environment, their communities and ultimately their customers. Utility companies in the U.S. and worldwide can and should take a new path and look for safer alternatives to chemically-treated wood.  

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