More than 800 million pounds of creosote are used each year as a wood preservative and for protection against wood-dwelling pests. For years, creosote was widely employed in treating raw lumber, such as for telephone poles and railroad ties. Coal-tar creosote is the most widely used wood preservative in the United States. This form of chemical exposure can occur when creosote enters a person’s body by being touched, inhaled or ingested.

Creosote manufacturers now being sued

Manufacturers are now being sued for knowingly exposing their employees and customers to large amounts of creosote.

High levels of chemical exposure have been linked to skin cancer, other major organ cancers and heart disease.

These are some of the side effects of direct contact with coal-tar creosote:

•    Rash or severe irritation of the skin

•    Chemical burns on the surface of the eyes

•    Irritation of the respiratory tract

•    Mental confusion and convulsions

•    Kidney or liver problems

Long-term exposure to low levels of creosote can result in various kinds of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are in accord, saying that coal-tar creosote is carcinogenic to humans.

Under pressure, the EPA reverses course on creosote

In 1978, the Environmental Protection Agency first tried to phase out creosote after recognizing its dangers. Six years later, however, under pressure from the creosote industry and stating that no adequate substitutes existed, the EPA reversed its stance. Since the early 1990s, alternatives have been available which were economical and less toxic, but the EPA did not institute a creosote ban.

The European Union did so in 2003 for amateur and unlicensed professional use, citing concerns over these health effects and noting that recent research had shown that the risk of skin cancer may have been underestimated previously.

Studies have shown birth defects in the offspring of animals exposed to high levels of creosote during pregnancy, but no such studies have been performed with humans. These studies indicate that chemical components of creosote may cross the placenta and reach the fetus. And because they tend to be stored in body fat, they may be found in breast milk and passed on to nursing infants.

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