How to Tell if Railroad Ties Have Creosote? Let’s Find Out!

Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to put my hands on some railroad ties which have been laying around a friend’s backyard for some time. He told me I could get them for free as long as I would take care of the transport. His proposal was tempting since I needed some wood for a landscaping project. Then I remembered reading somewhere about the possible dangers of using railroad ties for outdoor projects, so I decided to take some time and do some research about it. Here’s what I found out.

In short, the main problem with railroad ties is whether they contain creosote or not. How can you tell if your ties have creosote or not? There are 3 things you can check: smell (creosote has a typical strong chemical smell), appearance (sleepers with creosote are toned in some kind of black), and usage (unused ties most likely do not contain creosote).

Now, let’s first introduce what creosote is all about, then we will try to answer some common questions about it.

What is Creosote Made of? Why Is It Dangerous?

Railway construction companies treat 98% of railroad ties with creosote. It is a wood preservative that is made out of the distillation of various types of tar. Its purpose is to protect the wood from decay caused by extreme weather conditions. It is also an insect and parasite repellant, a function that increases the sustainability of railway lines.

Creosote-treated railroad ties can be dangerous if used for landscaping without treatment or sealing. The substance may leak and get mixed up in the soil and water. Exposure increases the risk of cancer, eye irritation, convulsions, skin burns, liver and kidney problems, or even death. There is, therefore, a need to know if the ties you want to use contains this chemical.

How to Tell if Railroad Ties Have Creosote

how to tell if railroad ties have creosote
“railroad tie” by pfarrell95 is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

It’s actually not difficult at all to tell if a railroad sleeper has been treated with creosote. Here are some indicators. Mainly, we are looking at the smell and the appearance.

Smell

People living near railways have complained of a carcinogenic noxious gas coming from railways. Creosote is made of tar and oil, owing to its distinct acidic odor. You can tell if railroad ties have been treated with creosote by the presence of the characteristic unpleasant smell, especially when the temperatures are high.

Appearance

This is the easiest way to tell if a railroad tie has been treated with creosote or not. Sleepers with creosote are generally described as being all shades of black, with a greasy goo. They are covered in a slippery tar-like substance, which can be present even after the treatment of the wood if it is not sufficient. It is not only noticeable on the outside; you can also see it oozing out of the wood.

Usage

Unused ties most likely do not have creosote in them because there has been no need for treatment. Used links are mostly laced with creosote, and only a small percentage of them are not. You can tell whether the sleepers have been used or not just by the appearance.

Chances are you are dealing with old ties which have been treated with creosote almost for sure. Then the following question comes spontaneously: is there a way to clean railroad ties from creosote?

How do You Remove Creosote From Railroad Ties?

There a couple of things you can try to remove creosote from sleepers. However, it probably isn’t even worth it. A lot of effort is required; honestly, I would recommend using some other kind of wood for your projects.

Solvents

You can use solvents in the form of paint thinners or white spirit. Hydrogen peroxide solution or carbon disulfide can also help. Rub the sleepers with your preferred solvent to break down the creosote, ensuring that you have covered every part of them.

Leaching

Some of the components of creosote are soluble in water. You can remove creosote from sleepers by subjecting them to highly moisturized conditions. Bury the ties, and the moisture in the soil will absorb or break down the compounds. This method is risky because the groundwater can get contaminated if the table is not deep enough.

This might also be illegal, so I strongly recommend you not to do that. I only reported it here for the record.

Summary

railroad ties
“Creosoted Ties, CN Yard Belleville_6112” by Bobolink is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

As you can see, it’s quite easy to tell if railroad ties have creosote in them. Finally, here are some things you should also consider:

  • If you want to grow food crops, do not use railroad sleepers. The compounds can come into contact with the roots, and consumption of the food products can be hazardous;
  • Before handling creosote-treated railroad ties, ensure that you undertake safety measures. Wear gloves and a long-sleeved sweater or shirt to avoid skin contact, and keep children away from that area;
  • Working in hot regions can also activate chemical vapors, which can cause severe respiratory problems. If you live in a hot area, avoid handling railroad ties during the hottest hours of the day.

At this point, you are probably going to consider getting rid of your ties. Obviously, you don’t want to burn them: toxic fumes would be released into the air, harming yourself and the environment. Check with the local authorities for the proper way to dispose of your ties.

Oh, I almost forgot: I still had to give my friend an answer to his proposal. Obviously, after reminding myself about the dangers related to creosote I refused! Actually, I ended up helping him get rid of them.