Poison Poles - A Report About Their Toxic Trail and Safer Alternatives
The Toxic Trail
Chemical Production: The Production of Chemicals Used to Treat Wood Poles

Petroleum-based chemicals

Penta, creosote, and naphthalene are all organic chemicals derived from oil and coal. The construction of oil wells and mining of coal also produces serious environmental damage. Drilled oil must be transported to a facility where it is refined. Shipment by oil tanker has resulted in some of the largest environmental disasters in recent history. Even more oil travels through mostly unregulated pipelines, leaking about 13 million gallons per year. Creosote is distilled from coal tars, which are by-products of the carbonization of coal to produce coke or natural gas. 

Metal-based chemicals

The most commonly used metal-based wood preservative is copper chromated arsenate (CCA), made up of copper, chromium and arsenic compounds. Copper mining and smelting are among the most environmentally destructive activities in several western states. Copper metal is the source of copper in most commercial copper compounds. Arsenic is present in ores containing other metals, including copper. Chromium compounds are derived from sodium chromate and dichromate, which are produced by roasting chromite ore with soda ash. Chromite ore has not been mined in the U.S. since 1961. In 1988, the main sources of chromite ore imports were South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Turkey. 

Toxic releases from manufacturing sites

"In March 1980, a 32-year old Mississippi man died soon after going to work at a penta plant near Jackson. An autopsy showed that he had high levels of penta in his liver, kidneys and lungs and had blood levels of 16 parts per million --or hundreds of times more than normal. The probable cause of death, according to the autopsy report: 'intoxication by pentachlorophenol.'"
The Kansas City Star, June 1984. 
Air tests at and around sites where chromium compounds are manufactured record high levels of the extremely toxic chromium (VI). Vulcan Chemical Company in Wichita, KS, the sole remaining U.S. producer of pentachlorophenol, releases millions of pounds of toxic chemicals every year into the Kansas environment, in addition to thousands of pounds of chlorine and chlorine-containing compounds that are released accidentally. In 1994, Vulcan reported releases of four million pounds of toxic chemicals and accidently released 18,000 pounds of chlorine and chlorine-containing compounds. These chemicals are also stored at manufacturing and wood treatment facilities, often in large quantities. In 1994, Vulcan reported storing nine toxic chemicals in quantities of one to ten million pounds. Seventeen more different toxic chemicals were stored in quantities exceeding 10,000 pounds each. 

Fires and explosions at pesticide storage sites are common. On April 6, 1991, a Royster Company warehouse in St. Louis, MO burned down. There were over 50,000 pounds of more than 60 different pesticides in the warehouse. The fire's toxic fumes caused at least $1.4 million of property damage. Cleanup costs were estimated at $500,000. 

Fish tissue sampled from streams affected by runoff from Vulcan show residues of pentachloroanisole (a carcinogenic metabolite of penta) and hexachlorobenzene (a carcinogenic contaminant of penta). Levels of hexachlorobenzene are as high as 180 parts per billion, which is a concentration at which any fish consumption would lead to exceeding the one in a million risk level set as acceptable by EPA. 

Worker exposure Workers on oil rigs and in coal mines are exposed to toxic chemicals in mines and from crude oil used in the production of wood preservatives. Workers involved in the production of coal tars that go into creosote are exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other toxic by-products. Workers employed in the manufacturing of wood preservatives are exposed to multiple toxic chemicals. 

"A Vancouver-based company is abandoning plans to build Canada's only pentachlorophenol production plant after unsuccessful attempts in B.C. and Alberta. Arnold Hean, president of Bradbury Industrial up, Inc., said the decision was based on federal plans to make companies show their chemicals are not hazardous to health and to not allow Bradbury to purchase the product label from a company that use to produce chlorophenols in Canada." 
The Vancouver Sun, January 16, 1987. 

Chemicals Spills

Toxic chemicals must be transported from their manufacturing facility to the site where they are used. On average, there are five hazardous materials accidents each day in the U.S., three during transportation. 

On July 14, 1991, a rail tank car derailed in northern California, spilling 19,500 gallons of the fumigant metam sodium, commonly used to retreat utility poles, into the Sacramento River. The chemical sterilized 45 miles of river, and made its way to Lake Shasta, which provides drinking water for millions of people in California. It was not until 3 weeks after the spill that EPA discovered (from files in the agency's possession for four years) that metam sodium is highly fetotoxic (toxic to the fetus) and teratogenic (causes birth defects). The same stretch of rail suffered 41 accidents over a period of 15 years.  


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