Each day, railroad workers are exposed to high concentrations of a wood preservative called creosote, which has proven dangerous health effects. While banned for consumer use, creosote remains in wide spread use in the railroad industry to treat railroad ties and railroad plugs. Railroad workers, especially the Maintenance of Way Employees, stand at a higher risk for exposure to creosote.
Workers in other fields, including asphalt workers, rubber, aluminum, iron, steel, and tire factory workers, and people working in the coke-producing industries, also stand at increased risk to the dangerous health risks associated with this chemical.
Risks arise when workers breathe in vapors, or have direct skin contact with, wood-preservation solutions, freshly treated wood, asphalt mixtures, or other products of coke-producing industries. The federal government agency that monitors creosote use said,
“Workers who work with creosote-treated wood in building fences, bridges, or railroad tracks or installing telephone poles may face exposure. Those who inspect or maintain these materials…also risk exposure to creosote.” From the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry October 2002 report (emphasis added).
What is Creosote?
Creosote, a complex mixture of many chemicals, is the most widely used wood preservative in the United States. There are three kinds of creosote. One type results from high-temperature treatment of coal (coaltar creosote), one results from high-temperature treatment of beech and other woods (beechwood creosote), and one comes from the resin of the creosote bush (creosote bush resin).
About 300 chemicals have been identified in coal-tar creosote, and there may be 10,000 other chemicals present in the mixture. The major chemicals in coal-tar creosote that cause harmful health effects are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenol, and cresols. Coal-tar creosote is the only form of creosote found in the environment and at hazardous waste sites, and therefore in terms of its effects on railroaders’ health, it is the one to be most concerned about. Coal-tar creosote is usually a heavy, oily, liquid that is usually amber to brown in color. Mixtures of creosote and other coal-tar products are black. The creosote found at hazardous waste sites is most often a black, heavy liquid. It has a sharp smoky odor, and a burning taste. It burns easily, but does not dissolve readily in water.
The major sources of human exposure to coal-tar creosote are contaminated hazardous waste sites, wood treatment facilities, and wood products treated with creosote. What is ironic is that although the general public can no longer buy coal-tar creosote for treating wood products in the home, thousands of railroad workers remain at risk because of creosote in the workplace.
The wood products that are typically treated with creosote are railroad ties used by the railroads and landscapers, telephone poles, marine pilings, and fence posts. Workers also can be exposed to creosote through contact with soil, water, or air contaminated as the result of burning creosote treated wood and other air-born releases from waste disposal sites and wood treatment facilities.
Creosots’s Effect on Health
Creosote enters your body through the lungs as a contaminant of air, through the stomach and intestines after eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water, or through the skin. Although there is no data on how fast or how much of the creosote mixture is absorbed, many of the parts of the creosote mixture (for example, PAHs) are rapidly absorbed through the lungs and the stomach and the intestines.
For railroaders, the most common routes of exposure around hazardous waste sites are likely to be through the skin, and drinking water contaminated with creosote. Although it is not known how rapidly creosote can enter the body through the skin, creosote can cause reddening from skin contact alone. Eating soil contaminated with coal-tar creosote can also provide a source of exposure. The chemicals in coal-tar creosote appear to accumulate in the body, particularly in fat tissue.
What are the Symptoms?
Even brief exposure to large amounts of creosote can cause harmful effects on your skin, eyes, nervous system, and kidneys and can result in death. Longer-term exposure to lower levels of coal-tar creosote can also result in damage to your skin, such as reddening, blistering or peeling.
The symptoms of creosote exposure are clear: eating food or drinking water contaminated with a high level of these compounds may cause a burning in the mouth and throat as well as stomach pain. Reports describing poisoning in workers exposed to coal tar creosote, or in people who accidentally ate coal tar creosote, indicate that brief exposure to large amounts of coal tar creosote may result in a rash or severe irritation of the skin, chemical burns of the surfaces of the eye, convulsions and mental confusion, kidney or liver problems, unconsciousness, or even death.
Longer exposures to the vapors of the creosotes can cause irritation of the respiratory tract. Skin cancer and cancer of the scrotum have also resulted from long exposure to low levels of these chemical mixtures, especially through direct contact with the skin during wood treatment or manufacture of coal tar creosote-treated products, or in coke or natural gas factories.
While many questions remain in the medical community about the long term effects of creosote on humans, the cancer-creosote link is becoming clearer through the research and studies of organizations including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). An increased risk for cancer has been demonstrated in animals exposed to coal-tar creosote. Birth defects have been seen in livestock exposed to coal-tar creosote-treated wood. Since these effects were seen in animals, it is also possible that they could occur in humans. The IARC has determined that creosote is probably carcinogenic to humans. The IARC classifies coal tar as carcinogenic to humans and creosote as a probable carcinogenic to humans. The EPA has also identified coal tar creosote as a probable human carcinogen.
FELA & Creosote
Creosote represents a serious health risk to railroaders because they continue to be exposed to creosote products as a condition of their employment. Under the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), a railroader can bring a suit against the railroad for injuries resulting from the negligence of the railroad. However, because FELA claims are unique, railroaders should be certain to retain the railroad union approved FELA attorneys of Hoey & Farina. If you have sustained a work injury you believe resulted from creosote exposure, please consult us immediately.