This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about pentachlorophenol. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Pentachlorophenol is a manufactured chemical which is a restricted use pesticide and is used industrially as a wood preservative for utility poles, railroad ties, and wharf pilings. Exposure to high levels of pentachlorophenol can cause increases in body temperature, liver effects, damage to the immune system, reproductive effects, and developmental effects. This substance has been found in at least 313 of the 1,585 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is pentachlorophenol?
Pentachlorophenol is a manufactured chemical that does not occur naturally. Pure pentachlorophenol exists as colorless crystals. Impure pentachlorophenol (the form usually found at hazardous waste sites) is dark gray to brown and exists as dust, beads, or flakes. Humans are usually exposed to impure pentachlorophenol (also called technical grade pentachlorophenol).
Pentachlorophenol was widely used as a pesticide and wood preservative. Since 1984, the purchase and use of pentachlorophenol has been restricted to certified applicators. It is no longer available to the general public. It is still used industrially as a wood preservative for utility poles, railroad ties, and wharf pilings.
What happens to pentachlorophenol when it enters the environment?
- Pentachlorophenol can be found in the air, water, and soil. It enters the environment through evaporation from treated wood surfaces, industrial spills, and disposal at uncontrolled hazardous waste sites.
- Pentachlorophenol is broken down by sunlight, other chemicals, and microorganisms to other chemicals within a couple of days to months.
- Pentachlorophenol is found in fish and other foods, but tissue levels are usually low.
How might I be exposed to pentachlorophenol?
- The general populations can be exposed to very low levels of pentachlorophenol in contaminated indoor and outdoor air, food, drinking water and soil.
- People who work or live near a wood treatment facility or in the production of utility poles, railroad ties, or wharf pilings may be exposed to pentachlorophenol in the air or by coming in contact with the treated wood.
- People living near hazardous waste sites may also be exposed to higher than usual levels of pentachlorophenol.
How can pentachlorophenol affect my health?
Studies in workers show that exposure to high levels of pentachlorophenol can cause the cells in the body to produce excess heat. When this occurs, a person may experience a very high fever, profuse sweating, and difficulty breathing. The body temperature can increase to dangerous levels, causing injury to various organs and tissues, and even death. Liver effects and damage to the immune system have also been observed in humans exposed to high levels of pentachlorophenol for a long time. Damage to the thyroid and reproductive system has been observed in laboratory animals exposed to high doses of pentachlorophenol. Some of the harmful effects of pentachlorophenol are caused by the other chemicals present in technical grade pentachlorophenol.
How likely is pentachlorophenol to cause cancer?
Some studies have found an increase in cancer risk in workers exposed to high levels of technical grade pentachlorophenol for a long time, but other studies have not found this. Increases in liver, adrenal gland, and nasal tumors have been found in laboratory animals exposed to high doses of pentachlorophenol.
The EPA has determined that pentachlorophenol is a probable human carcinogen and the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) considers it possibly carcinogenic to humans.
How can pentachlorophenol affect children?
Infants who were exposed to diapers and bedding which was accidentally contaminated with pentachlorophenol had high fevers, a large amount of sweating, difficulty breathing, and harmful effects on the nervous system and liver, and some died. Although these effects are similar to effects seen in adults exposed to pentachlorophenol, we do not know whether children and adults differ in their susceptibility to pentachlorophenol.
We do not know if exposure to pentachlorophenol will result in birth defects or other developmental effects in people. Death, low body weights, decreased growth, and skeletal effects have been observed in laboratory animals exposed to high levels of pentachlorophenol during development.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to pentachlorophenol?
Pentachlorophenol was a widely used pesticide for a long time. Today its use is restricted and it can only be used by certified applicators. You may have old containers of pesticides in your attic, basement, or garage that contain pentachlorophenol. Removing these old containers will reduce your family's risk of exposure to pentachlorophenol.
If you live near utility poles and railroad tracks, you should prevent your children from playing, climbing, or sitting on them especially in the hot summer months.
Though pentachlorophenol has been found in some food, its levels are low. You can minimize the risk of your family's exposure by peeling and thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables before cooking.
Children should avoid playing in soils near hazardous waste sites where pentachlorophenol may have been discarded.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to pentachlorophenol?
Tests are available to measure pentachlorophenol and its breakdown product in blood, urine, and body tissues. These tests cannot be performed in the doctor's office because they require the use of special equipment. Because pentachlorophenol leaves the body fairly quickly, these tests are best for finding exposures that occurred within the last several days. These tests do not tell you how much pentachlorophenol you have been exposed to and cannot be used to predict the occurrence, nature, or severity of toxic effects.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA has set a limit for drinking water of 1 part of pentachlorophenol per billion parts of water (1 ppb).
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set a limit of 0.5 milligrams of pentachlorophenol per cubic meter of workplace air (0.5 mg/m3) for 8 hour shifts and 40 hour work weeks.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2001. Toxicological Profile for Pentachlorophenol. Update. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
ATSDR can tell you where to find occupational and environmental health clinics. Their specialists can recognize, evaluate, and treat illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances. You can also contact your community or state health or environmental quality department if you have any more questions or concerns.
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Environmental Medicine
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-32
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1- 800-232-4636 / TTY: 888-232-6348