The process of heating coal or wood to very high temperatures forms creosote. Because creosote economically preserves wood, it protects most sleepers, telegraph poles, fence posts and older wooden bridges. Some medications may also contain creosote to treat skin ailments like psoriasis. UCLA Labor Occupational Safety & Health Program states that creosote may enter your body through your skin, lungs or mouth; and exposure can pose health risks.
OSHA lists creosote as a known carcinogen. The Material Safety Data Sheet states that inhalation of the vapours of creosote may cause lung cancer.
Exposure to the vapours of creosote may irritate the eyes. If the substance actually contacts the eye, it will need to be flushed with cool water to prevent burns. This can easily happen, when working with treated wood, if sawdust flies in the eyes or you rub your eyes with it on your hands.
Inhaling the vapours or treated wood dust may cause nose, throat and lung problems. In enclosed areas, inhaling the vapours can cause drowsiness, headache and weakness. You will need to treat this immediately with fresh air or oxygen. If breathing has stopped, apply artificial respiration.
When working with treated wood or sawdust it may be necessary to wipe material from mouth and lips. Ingesting creosote, in any form, will cause mouth and throat irritation. Vomiting and diarrhoea can result if too much is swallowed.
Although brief contact with the skin may not cause a problem, prolonged contact will result in irritation or rash. Skin coated with creosote and exposed to sunlight will burn. Repeated exposure can cause changes in pigmentation, benign growths, and skin cancer. If skin has contact with creosote, wash it with soap and water to remove it.
According to Beyond Pesticides, acute systemic poisoning can produce multiple problems, starting with vomiting, dizziness, headache and hypothermia. Convulsions and coma may follow. Continued exposure can cause shock, respiratory failure and renal failure. Death may follow.
Normally creosote hazards occur within industrial applications. However, landscapes and gardens may utilise old poles and sleepers. Children may play in these areas and contact creosote with their skin or clothing. Adam Sigler and Jim Bauder, of Montana State University, caution that contact with creosote can cause rashes or be swallowed. While ingesting small amounts may not be serious, it is a health concern.