“PENTA”…More than greek for the number 5.

I was watching the news a little over a week ago when I heard them talking about something called “penta” that was being applied to telephone/electric poles and that senator Chuck Schumer was upset about it possibly getting into the groundwater. For the life of me, I had no idea was they were talking about, but I did know that “penta” could not be the proper name for the chemical in question. I tried googling “penta + chemical” and I got nothing meaningful in the way of results. So, I went to my mentor and said “what is this chemical they are painting onto wood poles that has everyone so upset? I can’t remember the name they called it on the news, but it sounds incomplete.” He said oh yes, a wood preservative, they have been using it for years”.

So what is “Penta”

Penta is a synonym for the chemical Pentachlorophenol that is currently used as a wood preservative. It is an organochlorine pesticide, okay, why didn’t they just say so? I know all about organochlorines and their toxicity! I’m guessing, they didn’t really know much about what they were covering, they just knew it was important, and sounded bad.

Is Pentachlorophenol (PCP) bad?

Since the 1980’s the use of PCP has been restricted in the United States, and it’s use and manufacture is banned in several countries, such as Germany, throughout the world. In the U.S. it is only manufactured by one company – Vulcan chemicals. The problem is that it is a major, ubiquitous (found everywhere), environmental contaminate. It’s presence in groundwater and soil causes the most concern, because it can get into foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grain, as well as into drinking water. This is mostly due to its previous widespread use in agriculture and as a pesticide, where it was also available for  commercial use in and around homes and gardens. It was first registered as a wood preservative in the U.S. during the 1930’s. It has also been registered for use as an insecticide, herbicide, algicide, fungicide, germicide, and molluscicide . Pretty much it’s a biocide, meaning it kills a lot of different living things. Common exposure to the chemical by humans won’t result directly in death, but it can cause substantial harm. It is toxic to both animals and humans in acute and long-term exposures. Meaning, that if you are exposed to large amounts at one time, or if you are exposed to low amounts over a long period of time, it could have serious negative affects on your health.

What are the side affects of PCP and how are you exposed?

The type of exposure describes above can result in liver, kidney, blood, lung, nervous system, immune system, and gastrointestinal disease. This is due to the chemicals ability to disturb energy metabolism in the body (the way ATP is used) that leads to energy being  redirected into heat production.  As a result, acute signs and symptoms of exposure to PCP are tachycardia (fast heart beat), increased respiratory rate, fever, metabolic acidosis, and perfuse sweating. More serious complications are: aplastic anemia, leukemia, Hodgekins disease, and non-Hodgekins lymphoma. You can be exposed to PCP through 3 routes: oral, dermal, and inhalation. You can breathe in the vapors that are evaporating from wood poles or you can inhale its dust particles. You can also absorb it through your skin if you come in contact with it by touching or leaning onto a surface treated with PCP. Orally, you can be exposed to PCP by ingesting it from food or drinking water; children  by eating soil. If you live in a house (mostly log cabins) that has wood treated with PCP you are at higher risk of exposure through inhaling its vapors or breathing it dust particles from wood splintering and chipping away.  If you live near a hazardous waste site that disposes of PCP, or factory that manufactures it you are also at higher risk of exposure. Burning PCP treated logs can cause eye and respiratory tract inflammation because it produces an irritating and toxic gas.

In Summary

Pentachlorphenol is a synthetic chlorophenol chemical containing 5 chlorine molecules, along with carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen.  Listed as a probable human carcinogen, its use is regulated and only permissible to certified applicators. It is predominately used for the treatment of wood and in railroad ties, cross arms, and fence posts. It is no longer available for use by the general public or as a pesticide, thereby its prevalence in the environment has since declined significantly. It is degraded by sunlight in the air and surface water, and by microbes and organisms in soil. However effluents from factories and waste sites still present a source by which PCP can enter the environment. The most significant risk exposure is occupational, meaning that workers who apply or manufacture PCP are most at likely to suffer harm. You can reduce your exposure by washing and peeling fruits and vegetables. The Food and Drug Administration monitors PCP levels in food and it is not shown to buildup in the food chain. It is eliminated from your body via urine, but can be measured in your blood and found in your body fat.

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