Is Your Power Company Trying to Kill You?

Almost everyone is familiar with the sticky tar-like secretions and the asphalt smell oozing from wooden utilities poles on a hot summer day. These poles line the streets of many, if not most American cities and towns. They are covered in notices and the accumulated staples of flyers from years past. Look closely, and you’ll see a molten mess oozing off the pole onto the ground and into the paper flyers. What you probably don’t know that that messy stain is one of the most toxic substances known to mankind.

In the 1980’s EPA banned the use of dioxin for all uses, except one. To preserve wooden utility poles from insects and rot they are dipped in the pesticide pentachlorophenol (“penta”). Penta is an oil containing a toxic brew of chemicals known collectively as Dioxin. Penta is used to treat more than one million utility poles in Northern California alone. EPA banned the pesticide in the 1980's – one of only five chemicals the agency has ever banned. But utility and chemical manufacturing lobbyists secured a loophole from the regulation, allowing utilities to continue to use Penta to treat the poles placed by the millions on our streets and sidewalks, on playgrounds and schoolyards.

In 2009 the California-based Ecological Rights Foundation launched an ambitious campaign to get Dioxin out of our neighborhoods. The Foundation was founded in 2004 to clean up Dioxin from paper mills in Northern California. They soon expanded their work to eliminating heavy metals and other toxins consumer products. The Foundation has forced manufacturers to reformulate hundreds of products we use everything from children’s toys, cloths, and Halloween costumes, to computer equipment, hardware, and phone and power cords. Six years later, thanks to hundreds of legal actions, many companies have reformulated their products. When it began, about 90 percent of the consumer products the Foundation tested contained lead. In 2010, the Ecological Rights Foundation estimates that less than 10 percent of the products it finds on store shelves in California contain this toxin.

Then, in 2009, the Foundation became aware of another unrecognized threat in our midst. The family of chemicals referred to as dioxin are among the most toxic man-made chemicals known to science. The US EPA has stated that there is no safe level of exposure to dioxin. Dioxin damages the immune system and reproductive systems. It interferes with endocrine (or hormonal) system. And the science on cancer is irrefutable; dioxin is a known human carcinogen.

Yet our power and phone companies continue to install new utility poles soaked in dioxin, and pump dioxin into older poles. That dioxin washes off the poles when it rains and sloughs onto the sidewalk in the heat. The dioxin oil oozes out of the poles ultimately reaching our homes, our food and our bodies. The Foundation has measured frighteningly high levels of dioxin in the dirt surrounding utility poles and in rainwater dripping off of these poles. This dioxin can be traced into local streams and into major waterways, like San Francisco Bay, which is impaired by dioxin-polluted sediments. EPA studies show that Dioxin stays in the environment for decades and that it bio-concentrates as it moves up the food chain – meaning that the higher you are on the food chain, the higher the doses you are exposed to.

According to a California State Water Board study, what leaks out of the poles contains dioxin at levels up to 150,000 times EPA’s “acceptable level” for dioxin in residential soil. Dioxin-laden soil gets blown into the air as dust; people get it on their shoes and track it home, where it comes off on the carpets their kids play on. Parents should never allow their children to touch or play with utility poles. But standing at my front door in San Francisco, I count seven of the poles lining my street. Twelve wooden utility poles line the block of my children’s elementary school.

Each pole creates a plume of highly toxic carcinogens and teratogens and brings anyone nearby into close, daily, contact with dioxin. The utilities are aware that the poles are constantly shedding this pollution. They claim that the poles should be exempt from EPA’s ban on dioxin because no one comes into close contact with the poles. Anyone who has ever walked down the street with a child knows better.

Alternatives to Dioxin/Penta-treated utility poles include less toxic wood preservatives, or poles made from cement, fiberglass, or recycled metals, and moving utility lines underground. Currently, these alternatives are cost competitive with wood utility poles, but while regulatory agencies and the public remain in the dark to their environmental and health impacts, utilities continue to dip and install new poles. And even inject more of this toxic brew into older poles when they begin to run dry of the tar-like substance.

In September 2009 Ecological Rights Foundation filed a lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric for violations of two federal environmental laws. The suit asks the court to stop PG&E from discharging dioxin from its utility poles, a move that could eventually lead to wide-scale replacement of the Penta-treated wood poles. The suit alleges that PG&E’s utility poles are polluting San Francisco Bay with dioxin and claims the discharges are not permitted under the federal Clean Water Act. It also alleges that the dioxin and other chemicals emitted from the poles are causing substantial endangerment to human health and the environment, in violation of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

PG&E countered the suit with a denial, claiming that they have no way of knowing which poles contain Dioxin. However, each pole contains a metal tag with a code that names the manufacturer and specifies the chemicals used to treat the pole. PG&E also claimed that because they share ownership of many of the poles (with telephone and cable companies) they are not responsible. In May 2010 the judge in the case summarily dismissed PG&E’s arguments, allowing the case to move forward.

There are millions of utility poles across the US and many millions more around the world. Dioxin, which is banned for all other uses, is not the way to preserve them. Some nations understand the risk, and dozens have banned all uses of the Dioxin-laden wood preservative, including Costa Rica, Italy, Egypt, Sweden, Germany, and Columbia. Here in the US this case will play out in the coming years. The Ecological Rights Foundation is confident that the danger these poles pose to our children and our environment will be clearly evident. And that evidence will lead to a significant change and, ultimately, to a world where toxins are not ubiquitous but rare and we can trust that the products we use, our homes, our schools, streets and sidewalks, are safe.


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