railway sleeper treatments
Dutch oak railway sleepers  - Creosoted, but showing little signs on the surface British creosote treated used railway sleepers - The tar and creosote is often visible on the surface. New untreated hardwood railway sleepers. Sone woods are so dense and tightly grained that they don't need any treatment. New tannalised or ACQ treated railway sleepers. A water based environmentally friendly treatment.

The three most common treatments for railway sleepers:
used for over 150 years to lengthen life of timber
2) ACQ / Tannalised - latest 'environmentally friendly' pressure treatments
some hardwoods are naturally longlasting, & untreated

Are railway sleepers safe? Scarey newspaper articles ! Will sleepers be banned !

1 MINUTE VERSION ... for those in a hurry to get into their gardens !
From June 30th 2003 EEC and British law ruled that:
Used Creosoted railway sleepers COULD continue to be sold & used safely with some exceptions and guidelines:
**They should NOT be used where there is a risk of frequent skin contact, (e.g.schools, play areas, benches etc..) **They should NOT be used where where they may come into contact with food stuffs, (e.g. picnic tables)
**They should NOT be used inside buildings. (e.g. fireplaces)
There was NO PROBLEM with USED UNTREATED railway sleepers, NEW untreated or ACQ tannalised sleepers
So, to sum up... Don't use creosoted sleepers around children, food, or inside
Don't sit on them, eat off them, or put them indoors! HANDLE with GLOVES

So there you have it ... Get out there and plant! .. .. ...... ...


from the Dept.of Trade & Industry
* YOUR COMMON QUESTIONS* & maybe a few answers!
* SUCKING CREOSOTE 20 TIMES A DAY !* Kicking the habit !

Monty Python's Mr. Creosote, from the film 'The meaning of life'.

A dilemma in the world of reclamation is this: on the one hand you recycle materials (rather than dumping or burning them) which is creative and environmentally sound, and saves on trees being chopped down. On the other hand you are encouraging the use of timbers which may have been creosote-treated decades ago in less than green times, and are maybe full of pollutants. So are we environmentalists or polluters ?

Scientists recently discovered that the previously safe level of 50 parts per million of benzopyrene in creosote was now unsafe, which led on to EEC restrictions regarding the use of 'new creosote', and to a lesser extent 'used creosoted materials'. An EU directive sought to protect the public from benzopyrene found in creosote which, according to one German study, is now more harmful than previously thought. Benzopyrene is a carcinogen found in coal tar derivatives like creosote, as well as in cigarettes, and hamburgers cooked on charcoal-fired barbecues. A commission press release stated ....'The European Commission today adopted a new Directive banning the sale to consumers of the wood preservative creosote, after an EU scientific committee concluded from a recent study that creosote has a greater potential to cause cancer than previously thought, and exceeds the limits permissible under existing legislation. The ban, which takes effect from 30 June 2003 at the latest, also applies to creosote-treated wood. Creosote may still be used for industrial applications, e.g. railway sleepers and telegraph poles, but with tougher restrictions on its composition.' Enterprise Europe, Brussels, 26 October 2001 IP/01/1500
This was somewhat sensationally yet inaccurately picked up in the Daily Telegraph in February 2003:

'Toxic sleepers hit the buffers'
They're useful, decorative and soon to be illegal
.... By Giles Chapman (Filed: 15/02/2003)
Old railway sleepers, those sturdy slabs of timber with 1,000 horticultural uses, have never been so plentiful to gardeners. Whether for building a raised bed, boxing in a compost heap or creating rustic-looking paths, they're unbeatable. And they're also great value: Sheila Johnson, manager of Central Wool Growers, a farmers' co-operative in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, sells sleepers at £20.56 each. "We're asked for them constantly," she says. But the days of the trusty sleeper are almost over. After June this year, you will no longer be able to buy them. (untrue)

You'll probably groan when you hear the European Commission in Brussels is to blame, but the reason seems earnest enough. An EU scientific committee concluded from a recent study that creosote, in which all railway sleepers are liberally lathered to stop them rotting, is more dangerous than previously thought. Creosote is a chemical cocktail obtained by distilling coal tar and is classified as carcinogenic because the mixture contains benzopyrene (BaP). Scientists used to think that as long as there were no more than 50 parts of BaP per million in creosote, it was harmless. Now they've concluded that even such a tiny amount can cause cancer in humans. So from June 30 the sale of creosote and creosote-treated wood will be banned. (untrue)

Clearly, creosote is finished. But what about sleepers? Sylvia Wiltshire wishes she knew. She's been running the Nottingham Sleeper Company for 38 years. "I just can't get any answers," she says. "We don't really know what's going to happen." Her office looks out on a seven-acre yard bursting with old sleepers. At times, there are 30,000 in stock and she sells 2,000 a week, mostly to garden centres. Mrs Wiltshire says there are several similar suppliers in the UK. "We also uplift them and take them away," she adds, hinting at the massive logistical nightmare for Network Rail if 150,000 old sleepers can't find a home. She also doubts old sleepers are harmful. "Most of them are so weathered they've lost most of the treatment," she says. "These things aren't waste: every sleeper can be re-used and recycled. That has to be better than cutting down more rainforests."

Railway sleeper enthusiasts, if you can call them that, are also incensed at the EU directive. Charles Kenyon, who lives near Lincoln, has bought dozens and used them them for creating raised beds in his herb garden, for making gateposts and building sheds. "They're excellent things," he says. "In some cases they have matured over hundreds of years. "Ecologically, re-using old sleepers is the best thing that can possibly be done with them, despite a drop of creosote." End of the line Network Rail replaces one million railway sleepers a year, although less than half are now wooden. They're replaced by concrete and solid steel sleepers from the US. Most reclaimed sleepers are pine, with one in 10 made from hardwoods such as oak and even mahogany. After June 2003, Network Rail will store treated sleepers until it works out what to do with them. One option is to chip and burn them as fuel. This requires specially designed plants. Although these exist in Scandinavia and Germany, as yet there are none in Britain.

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2003
. Terms & Conditions of reading. Commercial information. Privacy Policy.

This article added to the already confused position of those who were buying and supplying railway sleepers. Would they be banned ? Could they still be sold after June 30th 2003? We wrote in February 2003:

"Showing a confusion and a distinct lack of communication is the present situation concerning creosote treated sleepers...Network Rail is supposedly not releasing any used British sleepers that they take up from the track, after June 30th. They will be stored somewhere and eventually disposed of, through whatever means. June 30th is meant to be the actual ban day in this country, according to the European parliament, for creosote treated sleepers. However there's masses of uncertainty. What about untreated sleepers, like Jarra ? What about salt treated sleepers ? What about imported graded creosote sleepers that are designated for landscape or construction use? Lots of uncertainties... and most people in the business scratch their heads with incredulity. Will there be midnight raids of railway sleeper depots, or a shady blackmarket deals with sleepers being exchanged on isolated waste grounds for cash in brown envelopes. Will there be a sleeper mafia with turf wars on old railway sidings ? Who knows !"

Things gradually became clearer.
The directive, which was published for consultation by the DTI (closing date 2 Feb 2003), had an exemption for reclaimed railway sleepers and other creosote-laden wood which said:

3.9 Wood treated with the substances listed in Directive 2001/90/EC.
'The prohibition . . . on placing on the market, does not apply where wood so treated is placed on the second hand market for re-use. Uses for which wood referred to . . . may not be used: - inside buildings, whatever their purpose - in toys - in playgrounds - in parks, gardens, and outdoor recreational leisure facilities where there is a risk of frequent skin contact - in the manufacture of garden furniture such as picnic tables, - for the manufacture and use and any re-treatment of containers intended for growing purposes, packaging that may come into contact with raw materials, intermediate or finished products destined for human and/or animal consumption - other materials which may contaminate the products mentioned above.'

We wrote in May 03 : "Sleepers WILL still be released for sale by Network Rail and also WILL still be imported into this country after June 30th, so rumours of empty supermarket shelves are false. Clearly creosote treated sleepers should now not be sold to schools, play areas and public places, where there might be 'frequent skin contact with creosote' but at the same time it is green light as usual for professional and industrial uses, which include: agricultural, railway, forestry, fencing, harbours and waterways and electric power transmission and telecommunications. Governmental advice to Kilgraney recently acknowledged that private use of sleepers in private gardens was still acceptable".

Some reclaimed timber dealers, have written 'creosote clauses' on their invoices. Salvo suggests that the clause should read as follows: 'EU law forbids the use of reclaimed wood treated with creosote inside buildings, in toys, in playgrounds, in gardens where there is a risk of frequent skin contact, or in garden furniture. Directive 2001/90/EC and 76/769/EEC (Creosote). Railway sleepers can still be used for raised beds, provided a flower bed is placed in front of them, or ivy grown on the sides, to prevent frequent skin contact.

.. !
If you want to read
the original DTI paper, visit www.dti.gov.uk/

Rumour has it that a UK study shows that where creosote impregnated timbers are in contact with the soil, an organism that thrives on benzopyrene neutralises the creosote over time. If this is the case clearly reuse along traditional lines is the best thing that could happen to an old railway sleeper

Kilgraney's present advice to it's customers:
Some of our sleepers were originally treated with Coal Tar Creosote. This has been used for over 150 years to preserve and increase the life-span of timber. Recent findings have indicated that creosote can be harmful in certain situations. So, in order to be careful:
Handle with gloves. Wear a dust mask when sawing or machining. Dispose of off-cuts, sawdust etc.. safely. Waste wood may be disposed of by burning, subject to any local rules on burning in the open, or via your local waste disposal facility.
Creosote timber should not be used where there is risk of frequent (i.e. often-occurring or constant) skin contact, nor where it may come into contact with or contaminate animal or human foodstuffs. In particular it should not be used inside buildings, in playgrounds, or for garden furniture and picnic tables

On a final note... Spot the tar competition

Dutch oak railway sleepers  - Creosoted, but showing little signs on the surface . . British creosote treated used railway sleepers - The tar and creosote is often visible on the surface.
Sleeper 1 - Dutch oak - Originally creosote .............Sleeper 2 - British pine - Originally creosote treated - you can
treated - yet nothing is seen on the surface or ...... see the tar and creosote on the surface that leaks
leaks out in the summer. So what's the problem? ...out in the summer. We agree, big problem in
Great for general landscaping, so why restrict ..... ..landscaping where children, clothes, pets and
their useage? Why tar all sleepers with the............vegetables are concerned. Great under sheds
same brush ?............................................................. .. though !

This is a wood preservative treatment that protects against decay and fungal and insect attack.
~ The timber is treated using pressure impregnation with a water based timber preservative, complying with BS 4072.
~ Treated timber has a green or light brown colour. The customer can sometimes chose which finish they wish.
~ When impregnated into the timber the chemical components become fixed within the wood structure and are leach resistant.
~ Usually specified for general construction and outdoor timbers

~ ACQ is so far the most environmentally friendly form of pressure treatment which has now replaced CCA treatment:
~ a new generation water-based wood preservative applied by vacuum and pressure.
~ Does not contain arsenic or chromium. ACQ (alkaline copper quaternary) contains a mixture of copper and "quat" -- a commonly used disinfectant.
~ The ingredients in ACQ have very low potential for human toxicity.
Provides protection from rot, decay and termite attack
~ For use in above ground, ground contact and fresh water immersion applications
~ Can be used in residential, commercial and industrial applications
~ Easily painted or stained

New tannalised or ACQ treated railway sleepers. A water based environmentally friendly treatment.
Softwood Sleeper - English or Scottish pine - Pressure treated (green )
None of the treatment comes out in the summer. Particularly suitable for schools, play areas, children, animals, growing food and indoors.

How long does it last?
Believe it or not,
the treatment companies (and hence us!) offer NO GUARANTEE
at all as to the treatment and the longetivity of the timber. They argue that the way timber is used and constructed is in so many different applications and settings (above ground, under ground, in water etc...) not to mention timber naturally splitting and moving, and being cut, drilled into etc.. that they cannot guarantee or predict how long the timber will last and how long the treatment will be effective.

Sitting on the fence
In reality, like many companies, they are frightened about people making claims against them
, and so chose to offer no guarantee, rather than risk someone wanting the whole of their fencing to be replaced after 10 years, if it starts to rot.


Although we all know that pressure treated timber will last considerably longer than 2 days (!) we are unable to say or guarantee how long it will last. Sorry.It's all very unsatisfactory, but it's the way of the world !

outside softwood will soon rot and collapse
Untreated denser hardwoods are different. Azobe is used
untreated by British waterways under water, due to its natural preservative qualities. Jarra, Karri, Mora, Greenheart is likewise placed untreated on the track by Network Rail. Untreated timber is popular with those wary of chemical treatments, or contamination

New untreated hardwood railway sleepers. Sone woods are so dense and tightly grained that they don't need any treatment.
Sleeper 3 - African Azobe - An example of untreated hardwood.
Particularly suitable for schools, play areas, animals,growing food and indoors

Softwood timber treated with salt. A much rarer and older style treatment that often originates from Russia. Free of any tar or creosote impregnation. Often used by organic gardeners. No examples in our woodyard at present. Out of stock of 'round-fronted pine' and 'Russian Bulkheads. Rumour has it that it it deters slugs (although this is at present hearsay, rather than empirical evidence!)

Railway sleepers - used Russian Bulkheads
Sleeper 4- Russian Bulkhead - Salt-treated

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS courtesy of the Department of Trade and Industry

Q1. Creosote is a well tried and tested popular brand; I have been using it for years to paint my garden fence and furniture, why has it suddenly become a case for concern?
Recent studies by the Fraunhofer Institute of Toxicity and Aerosol Research (Hanover, Germany) found that creosote had a greater potential to cause cancer than had been previously thought. The study was referred to the European Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and the Environment (CSTEE), an advisory body to the European Commission, who concluded that there is a cancer risk to consumers from creosote. The Committee considered that the magnitude of this risk gave clear reasons for concern. In the light of those concerns, Directive 2001/90/EC was adopted by the European Council on 26 October 2001 and must be implemented by all Member States. The legislation came into force in the UK on 30 June 2003.
Q2. Are there alternatives that I could use?
The main use of creosote is as a wood preservative. There is a range of other products on the market with varying colour, which can perform a similar function.
Q3. I am a member of the “y” railway restoration association, which makes use of railway sleepers, is it now the case that we will no longer be able to use creosote- treated railway sleepers?
No, it is not the case that you will not be able to use creosote-treated railway sleepers. Old railway sleepers treated with creosote prior to the 30 June 2003 can still be used for railway restoration purposes. They can also be placed on the market for second-hand re-use, but only for the purposes outlined in the Regulations. You will also be able to buy new railway sleepers for use on a railway. After the 30 June 2003, creosote can be sold and used in industrial installations and by professionals providing that the creosote complies with the new compositional requirements and the restrictions on the uses of wood so treated. Examples of permitted use include telegraph poles, railway sleepers, fencing and certain agricultural purposes.
Q4. After 30 June 2003 will I be able to purchase and use old railway sleepers?
Yes. But only for the purposes outlined in the regulations. Old railway sleepers treated with creosote can be used in parks, gardens, and outdoor recreational and leisure facilities but only if there is no risk of frequent skin contact. However, old railway sleepers treated with creosote must not be used inside buildings, whatever their purposes; in toys; in playgrounds and for garden furniture such as picnic tables.
Q5. My raised garden bed consists of creosote-treated railway sleepers. Should I be digging these up?
No. Wood treated with creosote prior to the coming into force date of the Creosote Directive, may be used in gardens, providing there is no risk of frequent skin contact. Furthermore, the prohibition on the use of treated wood does not apply where the treated wood was in such use before 30 June 2003, the date these Regulations came into force.
Q6. What is meant by frequent skin contact?
Frequent could be defined as “happening or occurring often or at short intervals”. In the context of the creosote directive, frequent skin contact could be considered as repeated (habitual) contact of the skin with, for example, creosote-treated railway sleepers. Habitual practices such as constant sitting, leaning against, laying on, walking on creosote-treated wood could be considered as frequent skin contact if there is no barrier between the skin and the treated wood. A person constantly handling creosote treated wood, especially without gloves, as part of their job (daily routine) could be said to be making frequent skin contact with creosote.
Q7. What shall I do with the couple of tins or so of creosote I have stashed away in my garden shed? Can I pour them down the drain?
No, you must not pour creosote down the drain. Contact your local authority and/or the Environmental Agency on how to dispose chemicals of concern. Many local authorities waste disposal sites have special arrangements for disposing chemicals.

YOUR COMMON QUESTIONS and maybe a few answers !

Q1. We have got railway sleepers that we want to make into decking however they are covered in years of railway muck - is there a product we can use to clean this mixture of oil and muck off? Do you sell it etc?
Cleaning up sleepers depends on what's on them. If 'railway muck' is merely airbourne grime and dust, then scrubbing with soapy water & detergent / or wirebrushing / or power jetwashing should nicely do the job. If it's some surface diesel / oil that has dripped down from an engine, then detergent or an oil 'dissolver' will deal with it. If you're talking about internal tar and creosote from the original treatment of the timber, then there's virtually nothing you can do, especially if it's continuing to ooze from within. Hot weather tends to draw the creosote and tar to the surface, where it fluctuates between being hard or sticky in various temperatures. Not nice or recommended for decking, especially British pine railway sleepers.

Q2. I have had my garden landscaped and used old railway sleepers around the perimeter and for seating. Whenever it is warm and sunny some of the sleepers ooze tar. My young children keep getting covered in the oily mess much to the disdain of my wife. I have tried a high pressure jet hose on the sleepers but this has had no effect. Can you help?

Unfortunately your story is all too familiar. There are only three effective options, I'm afraid.
1) If the oozy tar is unacceptable, (very understandable), remove the sleepers. There's nothing effective you can do to stop them leaking.
2) Replace them with non-creosote treated sleepers, whether new or used. Landscapers should not really be using the old GB pine sleepers, due to their unpleasant leaking. The best used sleeper would be the African Azobe, that is an untreated (and needs no treatment) tropical hardwood, that is very dense, and is sometimes used underwater, or for lock gates etc.. Alternatively new pressure treated Baltic / Scottish pine (treated with an environmentally child friendly treatment) or new untreated French oak. We can help you chose if you need.
3) Clad the existing sleepers with some kind of timber, or material that covers up the tar

Q3. I currently have about 15 sleepers (Used British Pine) for a long row of 5 steps leading from the patio onto the grass. Trouble is, I keep getting tar weeping from some of them, and over the past couple of weeks it just got worse and worse. I was wondering if you knew of anything I could use to stop the tar from weeping; I would like to keep the ‘’used’ look, but would personally be happy for a quick fix which I could do until I re-arrange the garden and order something without tar or creosote.2
See above. This type of question is the one we receive most. (several times a week).
Q4. Our local garden centre staff told me they didn't supply used sleepers anymore as they were not allowed to due to the oil thats soaked in to them.
Tell them to get their facts right !

I SUCK CREOSOTE - 20 times a day! .....WORLD EXCLUSIVE !!
Blocked up by a slight cold last year, as summer slipped into damp autumn, and Nottingham Forest's early sparkling form duly subsided into mediocrity, I invested in some Potter's traditional pastilles (£1.85p) 'The traditional remedy for the relief of Catarrh, Coughs and Colds' (and ailing football teams).
Clearly unpeturbed by the mighty European Parliament and Dept. Trade & Industry's rulings that creosoted materials should not be touched, placed indoors, or allowed to contaminate foodstuffs, this invigorating and brave lozenge declares in it's ingredients, that 0.2% is Creosote BPC. Mind you, as a note of caution, and perhaps nod to the powers that be, it does recommend that no more than 20 should be taken in 24 hrs !

"On one of your otherwise very helpful webpages you refer to creosote BPC in cough pastilles. This is very very unlikely to be the creosote made from coal tar that goes on sleepers and other wood products

It is very very likely to be creosote extract from the creosote bush which is a very different and natural product with a long history of medicinal use particularly for inhalation.

Confusing the two is unhelpful."

Martin Wright
Scientific Officer, Environmental Protection


Dear Martin

Of course you're right! Although the item is somewhat tongue in cheek, it is maybe confusing or unhelpful to those who are seriously considering the issue of creosote treatment in railway sleepers. Creosote BPC is an antiseptic and analgesic from the creosote bush, rather than the creosote product of the petro chemical industry.

Creosote BPC (often referred to as chaparral when used as an herbal remedy) is used as a herbal supplement and was used by Native Americans in the Southwest as a treatment for many maladies, including sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis, chicken pox, dysmenorrhea, and snakebite. The shrub is still widely used as a medicine in Mexico. It has been used as a disinfectant, a laxative, and a cough treatment
Interestingly enough, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States has issued warnings about the health hazards of ingesting creosote bush or using it as an internal medicine and discourages its use. In 2005, Health Canada issued a warning to consumers to avoid using the leaves of Larrea species because of the risk of damage to the liver and kidneys.
The other form of creosote is coal tar creosote. Coal tar creosote is the most widely used wood preservative in the world. It is a thick, oily liquid typically amber to black in colour. The American Wood Preservers' association states that creosote "shall be a distillate derived entirely from tars produced from the carbonization of bituminous coal." Coal tar used for certain applications may be a mixture of coal tar distillate and coal tar. The prevailing use of creosote in the United States is to preserve wooden utilities/telephone poles, railroad cross ties, switch ties and bridge timbers from decay. Due to its carcinogenic character, the European Union has banned the sale of creosote treated wood in many settings.

Coal tar products are also used in medicines to treat diseases such as psoriasis, and as animal and bird repellents, insecticides, animal dips, and fungicides. Some over the counter anti-dandruff shampoos contain coal tar solutions.

Well some info for your site
Our local parish council decided to install OLD sleepers along the length of the village green to stop cars driving on it. I advised that this is a public place, where children play, and old ones should not be used. They ignored this advice and installed them anyway.

I decided to try this breach, It turns out to be impossible.
I phoned local environmental health. They were not interested and told me to phone trading standards.
I phoned them, they were not interested and told me to phone health and safety.
They were not interested (not a workplace) and told me to phone the local environment agency
They were not interested and told me to phone my local council, which is where I started.
It would appear that there is NO body out there who can enforce this ruling, so therefore the ruling doesn’t exist.
What a waste of time these eec directives are!
Colin Willow
railway sleepers treatments railway sleepers treatments railway sleepers treatments railway sle