Source: Creosote Health Effects (Tronox).pdf (
Creosote can be released into soil and water and can then move through the soil to groundwater. Groundwater is water found underground in cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rocks. After creosote gets into groundwater, it may take many years to break down.
1929 – Creosote and its solutions reaches peak use (203 plants treating 60 million+ wood crossties). For a short period of time, zinc-chloride was added to creosote (discontinued in 1934). During WWII, shortages of creosote developed, so heavier oils and Copper Naphthenate were used as creosote extenders – these practices were discontinued for a variety of production related issues as available creosote supplies returned to normal near the end of the war.
How a person can be exposed to creosote:

You are exposed to creosote only by coming in contact with it. People may be exposed to creosote by: working in a wood preserving facility, – Workers in wood preserving facilities might be exposed to higher levels of creosote than the general population. living close to a wood preserving facility if the facility discharged creosote into the air or onto the ground, – The most common way that creosote in soil enters the body is through the skin. accidentally “eating” soil contaminated with creosote, – For example, children playing in areas with soil contaminated with creosote can swallow the creosote if they put their hands in their mouth after touching the soil. using wood treated with creosote to build fences, bridges, railroad tracks, or installing telephone poles, living in houses made of wood treated with creosote, drinking water contaminated with creosote, or eating some food, like fish and shellfish, contaminated with creosote.

Source: Chemical and Physical Information: ALDRIN-DIELDRIN (
Chemical Identity:
Wood creosote is discussed separately because it is different in nature, use, and risk.

Wood creosotes are derived from beechwood (referred to herein as beechwood creosote) and the resin from leaves of the creosote bush (Larrea, referred to herein as creosote bush resin). Beechwood creosote consists mainly of phenol, cresols, guaiacols, and xylenols. It is a colorless or pale yellowish liquid, and it has a characteristic smoky odor and burnt taste (Merck 1989) It had therapeutic applications in the past as a disinfectant, laxative, and a stimulating expectorant, but it is not a major pharmaceutical ingredient today in the United States. It is easily set on fire. Its color is usually amber to black. Creosote is the most common product utilized to preserve wood in United States. Creosote is also a pesticide. A pesticide is a substance that kills pests

Beechwood creosote is obtained from fractional distillation (200–220 EC at atmospheric pressure) of beechwood or related plants. The mixture has only recently been characterized to any significant extent (Ogata and Baba 1989). Phenol, p-cresol, and guaiacolsguaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol) comprise the bulk of beechwood creosote. Xylenols, other methylated guaiacols, and trimethylphenols account for virtually all of the remaining phenolics in the material. 
Source: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Phenol | NIOSH | CDC
Phenol – Mildly acidic, it requires careful handling because it can cause chemical burns. is a colorless to light-pink, crystalline solid with a sweet, acrid odor. Exposure to phenol may cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and nervous system – Autonomic nerve damage may produce the following symptoms:
Inability to sense chest pain, such as angina or heart attack
Too much sweating (known as hyperhidrosis) or too little sweating (known as anhidrosis), lightheadedness, dry eyes and mouth, constipation, bladder dysfunction and sexual dysfunction (Nerve Pain and Nerve Damage – WebMD: Neurological Symptoms)  
Some symptoms of exposure to phenol are weight loss, weakness, exhaustion, muscle aches, and pain. Severe exposure can cause liver and/or kidney damage, skin burns, tremor, convulsions, and twitching. Workers may be harmed from exposure to phenol. The level of harm depends upon the dose, duration, and work being done.
Cresols Toxicological Profile for Cresols ( are widely distributed in the environment and the general population may be exposed to low levels of cresols mainly through the inhalation of contaminated air. Cresols are also the product of combustion of coal, wood, and municipal solid waste; therefore, residents near coal and petroleum fueled facilities, as well as residents near municipal waste incinerators, may have increased exposure to cresols. When a substance is released either from a large area, such as an industrial plant, or from a container, such as a drum or bottle, it enters the environment. Such a release does not always lead to exposure. You can be exposed to a substance only when you come in contact with it. nose and throat irritation, gastrointestinal damage, skin can cause severe skin damage and cancer even death. You may be exposed by breathing, eating, or drinking the substance, or by skin contact.  The EPA has determined that cresols are possible human carcinogens. A carcinogen is an agent with the capacity to cause cancer in humans.
Guaiacols & Guaiacol | C7H8O2 – PubChem ( severe eye irritation, Causes skin irritation, Causes gastrointestinal irritation with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, Causes respiratory tract irritation. Guaiacol is also present in wood smoke, as a product of pyrolysis of lignin (Pyrolysis is the heating of an organic material, such as biomass, in the absence of oxygen. Because no oxygen is present the material does not combust but the chemical compounds (i.e. cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin) that make up that material thermally decompose into combustible gases and charcoal) 
Xylenols – Xylene: An overview of its health hazards and preventive measures ( The main effect of inhaling xylene vapor is depression of the central nervous system, with symptoms such as headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Feeling “high,” dizziness, weakness, irritability, vomiting, slowed reaction time, Giddiness, confusion, clumsiness, slurred speech, loss of balance, ringing in the ears, Sleepiness, loss of consciousness, death. 
How much is in the ground, air or dust and water? 
There is no data on the odor threshold in water or air because it is odorless. The major components of wood creosote (phenols) are susceptible to oxidative degradation when exposed to air (oxygen), particularly if the material is basic (high pH).  
Creosote can be released into soil and water and can then move through the soil to groundwater. Groundwater is water found underground in cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rocks. After creosote gets into groundwater, it may take many years to break down.
How does it act in this environment? 
What does it do to the human body?
Longer exposure to creosote vapors can irritate the lungs. Exposure to small amounts of creosote over time by direct skin contact or by contact with creosote vapors, may cause: – Blistering, peeling, or reddening of the skin – Damage to the eyes – Increased sensitivity to sunlight Eating food or drinking water with large amounts of creosote may cause: – Burning in the mouth and throat – Stomach pains Accidentally eating large amounts of creosote for a short period of time can cause: – Bad skin rash – Eye burns – Convulsions – Kidney or liver problems – Unconsciousness or death

Published by Clarissa Cowley

Claire is a Master of Science in Professional Media and Media Management graduate student with a specialization in multimedia journalism. She currently teaches web publishing, media arts performance and introduction to media production. She is a student managing editor of the GJR weekly digital newsletter reaching over 2,000 online subscribers. She is conducting research on an environmental and racial justice issue in Carbondale, IL for her thesis project.

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