Creosote risks put in the legal spotlight

Scientific opinion will reopen EU debate over rules, four countries' push for restrictions

The EU's scientific advisory committee on toxicity issues has called into question the safety of creosote in an opinion released this week. A debate is now beginning between member states to decide whether four EU countries can implement requested national restrictions, or even whether the EU as a whole should take action.

Creosote is derived from coal tar and is widely used as a wood preservative. Under a 1994 directive (number 94/60), the chemical is classified as cancer causing or not depending on its content of a polyaromatic hydrocarbon called benzo-[a]-pyrene (BaP). Below 50 parts per million (ppm) BaP, creosote is classed as non-carcinogenic and there are no controls on its sale or use. Between 50-500ppm BaP, creosote can only be sold for professional use.

The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden argue that this does not give sufficient protection for human health or the environment. Each of them has requested derogations under article 100a paragraph 4 of the EU treaty to implement national restrictions or bans on creosote containing less than 50ppm BaP. In a virtually complete absence of empirical data on the issue, the Commission launched further studies to determine whether the derogations should be allowed.

Drawing largely on the first ever full carcinogenicity study of creosote, undertaken by Germany's Fraunhofer Institute, the EU toxicity committee has concluded that there are "clear reasons for concern". There is sufficient scientific evidence, it says, "to support the opinion that there is a cancer risk to consumers from creosote containing less than 50ppm BaP and/or from wood treated with such creosote".

The committee stresses that the highest estimated exposure to the general public is "some 6-30 times lower" than oral exposure of the adult population to BaP in food. Nevertheless, its findings are certain to re-open debate in Europe about the appropriate level of controls for creosote. In particular, the four countries wanting to restrict its use have had their cases strengthened.

Any move to grant their wish will be vigorously opposed by creosote producers, however. A spokesperson for the European coal tar industry told ENDS Daily today that the sector disagreed with the Fraunhofer study's findings, in particular because the use of toluene as a solvent in the animal tests carried out. Discussions over a possible extra study to be performed without toluene were ongoing, he said.

Follow Up:
European Commission, DGXXIV. References: The "CSTEE" opinion is posted on DGXXIV's web pages.

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