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

Findings about 

Most utilities use wood poles treated with wood preservatives for their distribution lines. Since a wood pole is potentially a food source or living quarters for organisms ranging from bacteria and fungi to insects and birds, it must be treated with a broad-spectrum poison in order to protect it. Furthermore, utilities expect poles to last 35 to 50 years. The poison must be persistent.

The chemicals produced by the wood preserving industry meet these requirements. They are toxic to virtually everything, including people. They persist a long time in the environment. The same qualities that make them effective for protecting exposed wood from pests also make them dangerous to all other life. The toxicity and persistence of wood preservative chemicals have produced hundreds of Superfund toxic waste sites.

The wood preservative chemicals have other qualities in common. They are all toxic soups --complex combinations of chemicals, whose precise identity is generally unknown. Although other pesticides contain secret ingredients whose identity is known only to the manufacturers and EPA, wood preservatives go beyond secrecy. Pentachlorophenol, for example, is manufactured by a process that necessarily results in substantial contamination with dioxins, hexachlorobenzene, furan and other very toxic chemicals. Creosote is merely a fraction of coal tar that contains hundred of different chemicals, in different proportions according to the source. Copper naphthenate contains naphthenic acids which are derived in a similar way from petroleum. The arsenicals contain mixtures of salts of metals. Copper chromated arsenic, for example, contains salts of copper, chromium, arsenic, and other contaminants, including lead. It also turns out that the toxic effects of each of these soups are synergistic --that is, the combined effects of the soup is greater than the sum of the effects of the individual ingredients.


There are alternatives to preservative treated wood poles. Although an alternative treatment of a wooden pole is doomed to be broadly toxic and persistent, it is not necessary for utility poles to be made of wood. Poles made of concrete and of steel are used in some places. Some are competitive in price with wood, even without taking into account their longer lifespan. Although there are environmental problems connected with the manufacture of steel and concrete poles, the intrinsic problems are not as great as those associated with wood poles.


In the United States, utilities come in four varieties: investor owned utilities, municipal utilities, rural electrification associations, and public power districts. While there are more municipal utilities than any other type, the bulk of the profits go to investor owned utilities. Different types of utilities have different motivations for choosing pole types.


Currently, regulation provides huge incentives for polluting practices in the utility and wood preserving industries. This has been mostly the result of agencies abandoning the public interest in favor of protecting the interests of the regulated industries. The regulations that supposedly restrict the profiteering of investor owned utilities encourage utilities to accumulate capital --which may be in the form of nuclear power plants and may be in the form of poles-- and discourage utilities from trimming costs by realizing long-term savings.

EPA’s administration of the pesticide and hazardous waste laws has served to protect the wood preserving industry from any real restrictions on their activities. The companies that manufacture and use wood preservatives have managed to avoid data requirements under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and disposal restrictions under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) by loopholes, delays, and exemptions created by EPA.


This report recommends that the current regulatory incentives be reversed:
  1. Public utility commissions should find more direct ways of protecting the environment.
  2. EPA should examine the hazards of wood preservatives and the alternatives to using any form of wood in applications where treated wood has been deemed necessary.
  3. Wood preservative manufacturers should be required to disclose all the ingredients (active, “inert,” contaminants, and degradation products) of all of their products. They should test the entire formulation, and every time the formulation changes, they should test the new formulation.
  4. Wood preservatives and treated wood should no longer be exempted from regulation as hazardous waste.

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