Creosote is the catchall name for several substances, including wood creosote, coal tar, coal tar creosote, coal tar pitch and coal tar pitch volatiles. Its main use to humans is as a preservative treatment for wood; it is near-ubiquitous in outdoor telephone poles and railroad ties. However, coal tar products are also used in roofing, pavements, metal refining, and to treat psoriasis and head lice. Exposure to large amounts can cause chemical burns on the eyes, kidney and liver damage, even death; long-term exposure to small amounts is known to cause eye and respiratory damage, skin cancer and cancer of the scrotum. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has said that coal tar is carcinogenic and creosote is probably carcinogenic. Creosote is heavily regulated in the European Union.
Creosote: What is it and what is it used for?
Creosote is a general term used for a variety of products: coal tar, coal tar creosote, coal tar pitch, coal tar pitch volatiles, and wood creosote. Creosote is created by high temperature treatment of certain woods, coal, or from the resin of the creosote bush. Creosote is a complex mixture of many chemicals. About 300 chemicals have been identified in coal tar creosote, and there may be 10,000 other chemicals present in the mixture.
Coal tar products are used as insecticides, pesticides, fungicides, animal dips, and animal and bird repellents and are also used to treat certain skin diseases. Coal tar creosote is used as a wood preservative used to treat railroad ties, telephone poles, and many other wood products. Coal tar, coal tar pitch, and coal tar pitch volatiles are used in roofing, road paving, aluminum smelting, and coking.
The major chemicals in coal tar creosote that can cause harmful health effects are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenol, and cresols. Creosote does not occur naturally in the environment, but it can be released into groundwater and soil through its use as a wood preservative. Some parts of the creosote mixture can enter groundwater or change into other substances, while other parts persist in treated wood products for decades.
Creosote Exposure, Testing, and Health Effects
There are several ways a person may be exposed to creosote. Herbal products are made with the creosote bush; thus, creosote may be ingested. Anyone working in industries using creosote can be exposed to this environmental toxin. Anyone handling wood that has been treated with creosote whether for employment or not may be exposed to creosote. If someone is living in a house that has been made with creosote-treated wood, air or skin contact of creosote may result. Lastly, drinking water can become contaminated with creosote.
Unfortunately there is no test for creosote exposure, although doctors can determine the levels of creosote chemicals in the body. Adverse health effects from exposure to creosote range from burning in the mouth and throat and stomach pain to damage to the liver or kidney and skin irritation and cancer. The type and the extent of injury depends on the type of creosote exposure.
If you have been exposed to creosote and have suffered injury, you may have a legal case. If you would like to speak with a lawyer, please use the Find Attorney button at the top of the page.
Creosote Exposure and Health Effects
Exposure to creosotes, coal tar, coal tar pitch, or coal tar pitch volatiles may result in minor to serious health effects. 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. Taking herbal remedies containing creosote bush leaves may result in damage to the liver or kidney. Reports describing poisoning in workers exposed to coal tar creosote, or in people who accidentally or intentionally 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 exposure to lower levels of coal tar creosote, coal tar, coal tar pitch, or coal tar pitch volatiles by direct contact with the skin or by exposure to the vapors from these mixtures can also result in increased sensitivity to sunlight, damage to the cornea, and skin damage such as reddening, blistering, or peeling. Longer exposures to the vapors of the creosotes, coal tar, coal tar pitch, or coal tar pitch volatiles can also 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. Prolonged skin exposure to soot and coal tar creosote has been associated with cancer of the scrotum in chimney sweepers.
In studies, rats and mice fed a large amount of wood creosote at one time had convulsions and died. Rats fed a smaller amount of wood creosote for a long period developed kidney and liver problems and died. Exposure to coal tar products through the skin has resulted in skin cancer in animals. Laboratory animals that ate food containing coal tar developed cancer of the lungs, liver, and stomach, and animals exposed to coal tar in the air developed lung and skin cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified coal tar as carcinogenic to humans and creosote as probably carcinogenic to humans. The Environmental Protection Agency has also identified coal tar creosote as a probable human carcinogen.
Testing for Creosote Exposure
Unfortunately, no medical test can determine if a person has suffered exposure to wood creosote, coal tar creosote, coal tar, coal tar pitch mixtures, or coal tar pitch volatiles. Doctors can detect and measure chemicals contained in creosote (such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or phenols) in body tissues (organs, muscle, or fat), urine, or blood after exposure to creosote. Typically, doctors perform such tests on employees who work with and are exposed to coal tar creosote, coal tar, and coal tar pitch to monitor their exposure.
If you have been exposed to creosote and have suffered injury, you may have a legal case. If you would like to contact a lawyer, please click the Find Attorney button at the top of the page.