The Toxic Trail
The Toxic TrailForestry Practices
Chemical Treatment of Wood
Storage of Treated Poles
Treated Poles in Use
Disposal & Recycling
The Toxic Impact of Wood Utility Poles from Cradle to GraveIn order to fully illustrate the human health and environmental impact of wood preservatives, it is critical to understand how a tree becomes a pole or another treated wood product and the production process of the chemicals used to preserve wood.
It is not enough to evaluate the hazards associated with the use of wood preservatives, although their use alone creates severe hazards. The toxic trail of treated wood, from cradle to grave, must be considered. At each step, from the planting and growing of trees to the production of wood preservatives to the treatment of poles to their disposal, there are serious health and environmental hazards that must be considered. There have been several scientific attempts at conducting a life cycle analysis of utility poles. The different cycle phases have been identified as (i) raw material, (ii) processing, (iii) operation and service, (iv) destruction, and (v) reuse.0
Overview of Cradle-to-Grave ProcessWood poles start out as premium trees, higher quality than those usually used for lumber. Trees are stripped down to a uniform size, dried, then treated with preservatives. Wood preservatives must be highly toxic and persistent biocides to stop the natural process of decay. Some are derived from petroleum or coal tar, others from minerals. Chemically-treated poles are widely distributed, bringing a mini-Superfund site to virtually everyone's backyard. After the use life of approximately 40 years, the poles are casually discarded. Some go to landfills, some are reused after modifications, and some are recycled into fence posts or landscape material. Meanwhile, the emissions and waste from chemical manufacturing and wood treatment facilities bring high toxic burdens to communities across the country.