Poison Poles: A Report About Their Toxic Trail and Safer Alternatives
Press Release and Fact Sheet

EMBARGOED UNTIL February 4, 1997

Contact: Jay Feldman

Environmentalists Release "Poison Poles" Report and Launch Campaign,Cite Widespread Contamination and Poisoning from Use of Wood Preservatives on Utility Poles and Availability of Alternatives

In a report released today in Washington and over a dozen states, environmentalists say wood preservatives used to treat millions of utility poles across the country pose one of the most serious public health and environmental threats, as a result of the pole treatment process, storage, use and disposal. The report, called Poison Poles: Their Toxic Trail and the Safer Alternatives, cites the chemicals used on utility poles as some of the most toxic chemicals known to humankind --containing contaminants such as dioxin, furans and hexachlorobenzene-- and criticizes the Environmental Protection Agency and the nation's utility companies for not promoting and using alternative materials such as steel and concrete. The groups note that wood preservatives constitute the single largest pesticide use in the United States and launched a campaign to raise public awareness leading to the adoption of alternatives.

Washington, DC, February 4, 1997--

Environmentalists today released a report documenting widespread contamination and poisoning from the single largest pesticide group, wood preservatives, and launched a campaign to stop their use. The chemicals, used widely to extend the life of wood products including over 100 million utility poles, contain some of the most hazardous toxic contaminants on the market, according to the report, entitled Poison Poles: Their Toxic Trail and the Safer Alternatives. The chemicals include pentachlorophenol, creosote, arsenic and chromium VI and contaminants such as dioxin, furans and hexachlorobenzene.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, wood preservatives account for over one-third of all pesticide use. The report's authors say the volume could actually be as high as 1.6 billion pounds, which would account for more than all other pesticide uses combined. The chemicals are used to protect wood from insects, bacteria and fungus.

The report traces the "toxic trail" of wood preservatives, including their production, wood treatment, installation of poles, transportation, storage, and disposal. At every point along the toxic trail, the report documents contamination and poisoning. The authors point to what they call a failed regulatory process that they say does not provide adequate protection of public health and the environment. Cited is the EPA's failure to consider the viability of poles made from other materials, such as concrete and steel.

Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides and an author of the report says, "EPA has ignored the magnitude of the wood preservative problem from chemical production to wood treatment and disposal, allowing the contamination and poisoning to go on despite the availability alternative pole materials."

The group sites at least 795 wood preserving facilities across the country and hundreds of Superfund hazardous waste sites that are contaminated with wood preservatives.

Lois Gibbs, executive director of CCHW: Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, maintains, "Wood preservatives are the culprit chemicals in contaminating hundreds of communities across the country. There is no good reason to allow the poisoning to continue." A representative from Citizens Against Toxic Exposure in a Pensacola, Florida neighborhood, which EPA recently announced it would relocate because of wood preservative contamination from a nearby wood preserving facility, said, "EPA should move quickly to protect communities that suffer the adverse health effects from wood preservatives, including sickness, cancer, and reproductive problems."

The groups blame EPA for what they call a failed regulatory process that compromises the health and safety of people under pressure from the chemical and wood preserving industry. They believe that utility companies should adopt safer practices by using alternative pole materials.

The National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP), a national coalition of community-based organizations and people founded in 1981, operates a national information clearinghouse on pesticide hazards and alternatives to their use, and advocates for changes in policies and practices to stop and prevent pesticide poisoning and contamination.

CCHW: Center for Health, Environment and Justice is a sixteen year-old, non-profit, organization founded in 1981 by Lois Marie Gibbs, leader of the campaign at Love Canal. In 1981, the main focus of the organization (then called the Citizens Clearinghouse For Hazardous Waste) was helping community groups suffering from the effects of toxic dumps similar to Love Canal. Since then, the group has expanded its programs to match the expanding environmental health concerns of grassroots groups.

Citizens Against Toxic Exposure is a community group founded in 1992 to deal with the health threat to nearby residents and former workers at a wood treating site in Pensacola, Florida.

Fact Sheet on Chemically Treated Wood Utility Poles

  • Wood preservatives, used to chemically treat wood utility poles, contain dangerous chemicals, including dioxins, which harm human health and the environment. The last remaining use of pentachlorophenol is as a wood preservative on utility poles.
  • There are approximately 135 million chemically treated wood utility poles in the U.S.-3% of these poles are replaced annually.
  • From the growing of a tree to the disposal of a treated wood pole as a hazardous waste, each step in the cradle-to-grave life of a treated wood pole creates a toxic threat, including: 1) Forestry practices for growing trees; 2) Chemical production; 3) Chemical treatment of the wood; 4) Storage of treated poles; 5) Installation of treated poles; 6) Retreating of wood poles; 7) Disposal and recycling of treated poles; 8) Transportation of chemicals and treated poles.
  • Wood preservatives account for over one- third of the 2 billion pounds of pesticides used in the U.S. annually. Nearly 600 million cubic feet of wood poles (approx. 4 million poles) are treated with these chemicals each year.
  • The three major chemical wood preservatives are Pentachlorophenol (Penta), Creosote, and Arsenicals (Copper Chromium Arsenate- CCA). A fourth, Copper Naphthenate, is considered an alternative.
  • Chemical treating of wood poles is one of the last remaining uses of penta and creosote -- 43% of all poles are treated with penta; 93% of the remaining legal uses of penta is for pole treatment; 42% of all poles are treated with arsenicals; and, 13% are still treated with creosote.
  • The use of penta is prohibited in 26 countries around the world, but not in the U.S.
  • Wood preservatives are ranked among the most potent cancer agents, promoters of birth defects and reproductive problems and nervous system toxicants.
  • There are at least 795 wood preserving plants in the U.S. whose operations and waste products are not adequately regulated.
  • In 1984, EPA issued a standard to limit dioxin contamination in penta to 1 part per million (ppm). In 1986, under pressure from the chemical industry, lead by the sole producer of penta in the U.S., Vulcan Chemical Co., EPA agreed to raise the dioxin levels by 4 times to 4 ppm in some cases. This issue has not been revisited since 1986.
  • In 1995, the wood preserving industry reported $3.65 billion in annual gross sales.
  • The electric utility and wood preserving industries continuously strive to deny and avoid the cost and potential liability of the disposal of treated poles. Treated wood waste is considered municipal waste. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) estimated that, "by avoiding the hazardous waste designation [of used treated wood poles], the utility industry would save $15 billion between 1989 and 1993."
  • Poles made of alternative materials, such as steel, concrete, fiberglass or the burying of lines are all alternatives that are currently used in the U.S.

National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides
701 E Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
202-543-5450 (voice)
202-543-4791 (fax)

[email protected]
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