ToxFAQsTM for Creosote
CAS#: Wood Creosote 8021-39-4; Coal Tar Creosote 8001-58-9; Coal Tar 8007-45-2
PDF Versionpdf icon[93.4 KB]
This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions (FAQs) about creosote. For more
information, 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. It is important you understand this
information 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.
Creosote is a mixture of many chemicals. Eating food or
drinking water with high levels of creosote may cause burning in the mouth and
throat, and stomach pain. Long-term contact with creosote has been
associated with increased risk of contracting cancer. Creosote has been found
in at least 46 of the 1,613 National Priorities List sites identified by the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is creosote?
Creosote is the name used for a variety of products: wood
creosote, coal tar creosote, coal tar, coal tar pitch, and coal
tar pitch volatiles. These products are mixtures of many
chemicals created by burning of beech and other woods,
coal, or from the resin of the creosote bush.
Wood creosote is a colorless to yellowish greasy liquid with
a smoky odor and burned taste. Coal tar creosote is a thick,
oily liquid typically amber to black in color. Coal tar and coal
tar pitch are usually thick, black, or dark-brown liquids or
semi-solids, with a smoky odor.
Wood creosote has been used as a disinfectant, a laxative,
and a cough treatment, but has since been replaced by
better medicines. Coal tar products are used in medicines to
treat skin diseases such as psoriasis, and also as animal and
bird repellents, insecticides, animal dips, and fungicides.
Coal tar creosote is the most widely used wood preservative
in the United States. Coal tar, coal tar pitch, and coal tar
pitch volatiles are used for roofing, aluminum smelting, and
What happens to creosote when it enters the environment?
- Coal tar creosote is released to water and soil mainly as a
result of its use in the wood preservation industry.
- Components of creosote that do not dissolve in water will
remain in place in a tar-like mass.
- Some components of coal tar creosote dissolve in water
and may move through the soil to groundwater.
- Once in groundwater, it may take years for it to break
- Coal tar creosote can build up in plants and animals.
- We do not know what happens to wood creosote when it
enters the environment.
How might I be exposed to creosote?
- Using products that contain creosote to improve skin
problems such as eczema or psoriasis.
- Eating herbal remedies containing the leaves from the
creosote bush, which are sold as dietary supplements.
- Working in the wood preservative, coke-producing, or
- Using creosote-treated wood in building fences, bridges,
or railroad tracks, or installing telephone poles.
- Living in treated-wood houses that may result in air or
skin contact with creosote.
- Drinking water contaminated by a hazardous waste site.
How can creosote affect my health?
Eating food or drinking water contaminated with high levels
of creosotes may cause a burning in the mouth and throat,
and stomach pains. Taking large amounts of herbal remedies
containing creosote bush leaves may cause damage to the
liver or kidney.
Brief direct contact with large amounts of coal tar creosote
may result in a rash or severe irritation of the skin, chemical
burns of the surfaces of the eyes, convulsions and mental
confusion, kidney or liver problems, unconsciousness, and
even death. Longer direct skin contact with low levels of
creosote mixtures or their vapors can result in increased light
sensitivity, damage to the cornea, and skin damage. Longer
exposure to creosote vapors can cause irritation of the
How likely is creosote to cause cancer?
Long-term exposure to low levels of creosote, especially
direct contact with the skin during wood treatment or
manufacture of coal tar creosote-treated products, has
resulted in skin cancer and cancer of the scrotum. Cancer of
the scrotum in chimney sweeps has been associated with
long-term skin exposure to soot and coal tar creosotes.
Animal studies have also shown skin cancer from skin
exposure to coal tar products.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has
determined that coal tar is carcinogenic to humans and that
creosote is probably carcinogenic to humans. The EPA has
determined that coal tar creosote is a probable human
How can creosote affect children?
There is no unique exposure pathway of children to
creosote. Children exposed to creosote will probably
experience the same health effects seen in adults exposed to
creosote. Children who played on soil contaminated with
creosote had more skin rashes than children who played in
uncontaminated areas. We do not know whether children
differ from adults in their susceptibility to health effects from
Studies in animals have shown birth defects in the young of
mothers exposed to high levels of creosote during
pregnancy, but we do not know whether the same effects
would occur in humans. Some animal studies indicate that
creosotes may cross the placenta and reach the fetus.
Because chemical components (PAHs, cresol, phenols) of
coal tar creosote may be stored in body fat, they may be
found in breast milk and could pass to nursing infants.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to creosote?
- If you live in a residential area that used to have a wood
preservation facility or gas manufacturing plant nearby, wear
long-sleeved shirts and long pants when working or playing
outside and avoid using water contaminated with creosote.
- Instruct children not to come in contact with creosote-treated wood when playing on or near railroad tracks, in
ditches close to utility poles, in old barns or other farm
structures, or on bridges or piers.
- Avoid using herbal remedies containing the leaves of the
creosote bush and seek alternatives to skin remedies
- If you are exposed to creosote in the workplace, make
sure you do not carry the chemical home in your clothing,
skin, hair, tools, or other objects from the workplace (shower
before going home).
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to creosote?
There is no medical test to determine if you have been
exposed to creosote. Some components of creosote mixtures
can be measured in body tissues, urine, or blood after
exposure to creosote. These tests cannot tell whether
harmful health effects will occur. The tests are not routinely
available at the doctor's office because they require special
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
has set an exposure limit of 0.2 milligrams of coal tar pitch
volatiles per cubic meter of air (0.2 mg/m3) in workplace air during an 8-hour day, 40-hour workweek.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
(ATSDR). 2002. Toxicological Profile for Creosote (Update).
Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,
Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Office of Innovation and Analytics, Toxicology Section
4770 Buford Highway
Chamblee, GA 30341-3717
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.