Ever notice that black sticky looking goo on utility poles when you put your sign up for the weekend garage sale? I had never given it a second thought until I attended the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) held on the University of Oregon’s campus this spring. According to the panelists on the “Dioxin from Phone Poles: Poison in Your Back Yard” panel, the last thing we want to do is get a closer look.
Most utility poles are covered in toxins that are proven to cause cancer. Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware of the danger the black looking goo poses, and I’ve noticed a pole on virtually every corner in the neighborhood-vegetable gardens planted near these poles and children playing around them. Because heat draws the material down the pole and into the soil, (the soil often leaks into nearby storm drains and into local waterways) the area surrounding each of these poles is a mini superfund site.
In addition to the people living and playing near these poles, utility workers that climb and repair them are at high risk of health problems from toxin exposure.
Before WWI, the steel industry began looking for ways to use its waste products, and provided the public with pentachlorophenol (penta), a wood preservative. According to PIELC panelist Patricia Clary, a representative from Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, penta is so toxic that nothing can live in the wood.
Years later, health issues related to penta began to surface. Because it contains dioxin, a known human carcinogen, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned its production in 1987, except for the use on utility poles. Still used today, penta is dissolved into petroleum and forced into the poles wood.
A 1994 EPA report stated, there is no safe level of exposure to dioxin, which can cause cancer and severe reproductive and developmental problems.
According to the panelists, there are 140 million utility poles treated in the U.S., the majority treated with penta. Additionally, damaged poles are sold to individuals to use in landscaping and garden use.
Heat draws the penta oil mix to the surface of the pole during hot weather so it can easily slip down the pole into the soil, wash down storm drains, and get into water systems.
“The poles lose up to 50 percent of their oils in the first eight to 10 years into the environment,” said Fredric Evenson from the Ecological Rights Foundation. He explained that mixing dioxin with oil makes it travel very fast through the soil. Penta has been found in groundwater as far as 90 feet below the surface.
“Each of these poles are like mini superfund sites all across the country. They are in people’s backyards, school yards, near daycare centers,” explains Evenson.
The panelists said the vast majority of poles they tested in California came from the McFarland Cascade Pole Treating Facility, located near the Eugene airport. Evenson describes a massive plume of penta surrounding this entire wetland area, with oil floating on the surface of groundwater, which he explains, likely makes its way into the Willamette River.
Fiberglass poles, steel poles, applying citrus oil, and using tree species that don’t need to be treated, are all alternatives to penta use. “The real answer is to get away from wood,” said Clary.