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Toxic Tuesdays

Pentachlorophenol

Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Pentachlorophenol (PCP)

Pentachlorophenol (PCP) is a manmade chemical that exists as solid crystals or flakes. Since the 1930s, it was used as a pesticide, disinfectant, and wood preservative. In the 1980s, its use became restricted to industrial purposes such as preserving wood on docks, railroads, and utility poles. PCP can enter the air, water, and soil from spills or improper waste disposal at facilities that use it. This can expose people who work at or live near facilities that use PCP. It can also evaporate from treated wood surfaces and enter the air, exposing people to chronic low levels of PCP in indoor and outdoor air.

PCP exposure is known to cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and brain in people who work in facilities that use it. When adults inhale air that contains PCP that has evaporated from treated wood, it can cause fevers and irritation to the skin and eyes. PCP exposure to infants has caused fevers, difficulty breathing, damage to the brain and liver, and even death. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers PCP to be likely to cause cancer.

Residents of L’Anse, Michigan began reporting odors and dust particles coming from the L’Anse Warden Electric Company Power Plant in 2007 and by 2016 had convinced the EPA to hold a public hearing. The company had a state permit allowing it to burn waste for fuel, including railroad ties that had been treated with PCP. As the EPA began investigating, the permit was changed in 2016 to no longer allow burning of PCP-treated wood. Air and soil sampling was done in 2017 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and CHEJ reviewed the results for the local grassroots community group Friends of the Land of Keweenaw (FOLK). The sampling found that the power plant was emitting several dangerous chemicals including PCP into the surrounding neighborhoods, significantly increasing residents’ risk of developing cancer. PCP may be contributing to this cancer risk, and furthermore, little is known about how PCP and the other chemicals emitted from the power plant may interact with each other to impact human health. Regular monitoring, remediation, and cleanup should be done to protect L’Anse residents from the potential harmful effects of PCP and other chemicals. Unfortunately, despite the data, ATSDR concluded that the power plant emissions were not a threat to residents’ health. When a government agency’s own sampling data and analysis guidelines indicate people’s health is at risk and the agency still does nothing, it is clear we need stronger regulations to force action in order to prioritize health and safety.

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