Oil Spills, Alterno-Drano, and Railroad Ties

What is the environmental impact of oil spills into the ocean?

—Sarah, Baton Rouge, LA

© Jerry Russell

According to Alaska Sea Grant, oil spills into water place an enormous variety of animals and plants at severe risk from smothering and poisoning. The group says the famous 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska directly killed between 300,000 and 645,000 birds, including bald eagles and many types of sea birds. Seals, otters, killer whales and fish were also killed and injured in alarming numbers. Sea Grant says the oil critically damaged beach ecosystems and contaminated sediments and seriously disrupted local economies.

The Oil Pollution Act (OPA) of 1990 improved the federal government’s ability to respond to spills and created the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, which provides up to $1 billion per spill. The act also required that, by 2015, all tankers operating in U.S. waters be double-hulled to protect against spills.

But massive oil spills still occur. The sinking of the Greek oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain last November resulted in a spill twice the size of the Exxon Valdez, and is expected to affect the area through 2006. The proposed Stop Oil Spills (S.O.S.) Act would put OPA on a fast track, requiring all tankers to be double-hulled by 2007. International laws are similar and are also under revision. About 3,500 single-hulled tankers still transport chemicals and oil across the world’s oceans.


Ocean Futures Society
Tel: (805) 899-8899

—Abbi Leman and Becca Manning

Are there any environmentally safe alternatives to common household chemicals such as Drano?

—Mosun Mah, Los Angeles, CA

While many common household chemicals may be convenient, some are fairly toxic. Ken Giles of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warns that some of the most toxic chemicals in everyday cleaners include bleach, ammonia and chlorine. These chemicals can result in side effects including fatigue, headaches, nausea and irritation to eyes, nose and throat. If ingested, they can cause liver and kidney damage.

Many companies, such as Seventh Generation, Country Save and Heather’s Natural and Organic Cleaning Products, now sell household cleaners made of natural, non-toxic ingredients.

An even cheaper alternative is to create your own cleaning supplies using such common ingredients as baking soda, lemon and vinegar. Baking soda, for example, is a naturally occurring substance that absorbs odors and acts as a non-abrasive cleaner on counter tops, bathtubs and ovens. Seventh Generation recommends clearing clogged drains with a mixture of vinegar, baking soda and boiling water. Do be careful, however, as mixing chemicals can be dangerous. "When you start mixing things up at home you end up with a product with no label," cautions Giles. "And it may not be child resistant."


U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission
Tel: (301) 504-6816

—Sarah Loehndorf

Is it safe to reuse old railroad ties in yards and gardens?

—Scott Wilson, Highland Mills, NY

As an alternative to simply tossing them in landfills, old railroad ties are commonly used around the home as landscaping barriers and retaining walls. However, the chemical often used to preserve the wood, coal tar creosote, can present some problems. This form of creosote, a mixture of chemicals created by distilling coal tar, is toxic in large amounts or after extended exposure. It is listed as a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, and is linked to skin and respiratory disorders. The European Union recently banned creosote.

Coal tar creosote can also negatively affect the environment. According to the Creosote Coal Tar Cancer Lawsuits website, the chemical may "reach the soil as a result of leaking or seeping from treated timber." Some creosote components may leach into groundwater and, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), may take years to break down. Vice President Colin McCown of the American Wood-Preservers" Association argues that tests on household plants growing next to old crossties found no creosote residue. "It really is fairly safe," he says. But ATSDR’s Petro Kacur disagrees. "We don’t recommend that any chemically treated posts or ties be used in household gardens," he says.

Home and Garden Television recommends using creosote-treated wood only for retaining walls. Some faux railroad ties are now available from big box retailers, but they are typically treated with arsenic, which may also worry conscious consumers.


Tel: (404) 498-0110

Creosote Coal Tar Cancer Lawsuits
Tel: (800) 632-8400

—Kerri Linden