Railroad ties: a potential source of water & garden pollution?

By pinecarr on Sat, Aug 1, 2015 - 10:53am

With the heightened sense that the economy is getting more and more unstable, I've been trying to shift gears to more seriously address resiliency (vs temporary emergency) preps.  So water resiliency is one of the things that is now at the top of my list.

In addition to looking at rainwater collection, I have started to more seriously consider getting a well drilled on my property.  So I started looking for answers to questions like:

"Are there local businesses that specialize in well-drilling that I may be able to hire?" (Yes). 

"How much (ballpark) would  it cost me to get a well drilled here?

"Given that we have municipal water here, are there any zoning restrictions against having wells that I need to know about?"

And then I thought of another one that I hadn't really thought of a lot before:

"Before I get a well drilled, do I need to be concerned about potential  pollutants from the nearby old railroad tracks?"

We live in an older area (for the US), established in the late 1700's.  We have an old railway -still in use, though not heavily- that runs behind my garden property.  And so I started wondering about the wooden railroad ties used on the tracks. Are they treated with creosote (a wood-preservative)?  And if so, do I need to be concerned that if I get a well dug in property adjacent to the railroad tracks, that the water may be polluted?  And for that matter, once I asked that question, I started wondering if the plants in my garden are already potentially being impacted...

So I have just started looking into this, but it looks like it may be a valid concern.  Here are a couple of references I've found so far:

"Environmental Contaminants", at http://www.railstotrails.org/build-trails/trail-building-toolbox/corridor-research/environmental-contaminants/

The chemicals that railroad ties are treated with can pose a problem to trail development. One common treatment is creosote, an insecticide, sporicide, miticide and fungicide that penetrates deeply into pressure-treated wood for a long time. If the railroad ties are old, creosote may ooze out, leeching the soil and killing plants, insects and small animals. Creosote also pollutes the local watershed and can be dangerous to health with prolonged or frequent contact. Wood oozing creosote should be disposed of immediately as municipal solid waste. Railroad ties coated in creosote are not intended for use in landscaping and should not be used along the trail. [Bold mine]

Wood coated in chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which appears green, can be even more dangerous. This preservative protects against rotting with chromium, copper and arsenic, and it is a common alternative to creosote for treating railroad ties. The arsenic in the wood is toxic, making it a danger to plants and wildlife that have prolonged contact with it. CCA- treated railroad ties should be disposed of through municipal means. [Bold mine]

"Public Health Statement For Creosote", at  http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=64&tid=18

If the soil in your yard was contaminated by creosote in the past, you should probably not grow food in it. [bold mine]

And: "Railway transportation as a serious source of organic and inorganic pollution" at:


The railway is one of the most fundamental (apart from roads) means of transportation. In Poland, the rail has used some areas for more than 150 years. It has been commonly thought that rail transportation is much less harmful to the environment than road traffic. However, the specificity of rail causes some typical organic and inorganic contamination (Malawska and Wiłkomirski 1999, 2000, 2001; Lacey and Cole 2003; Liu et al. 2009), resulting mostly from used lubricate oils and condenser fluids, transportation of oil derivatives, metal ores, fertilizers and different chemicals, as well as from application of herbicides. The two most important types of pollutants connected with railway transport are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals. Besides high toxicity, significant stability and a cumulative effect in the environment PAHs have a peculiar feature, which is the carcinogenic and mutagenic effect on living organisms (IARC 1983). The main source of PAHs in railway areas derives from substances used for rolling stock exploitation such as machine grease, fuel oils and transformers oils. Another important source of PAHs is creosote, which is a common impregnation agent for outdoor wood structures, including railway ties (Brooks 2004; Moret et al. 2007; Thierfelder and Sandström 2008).  [Bold mine]

I don't know how close/far something has to be to creosote-treated railroad ties (assuming the ones behind my garden are creosote treated; still  need to verify) to be concerned about this kind of a potential environmental pollution.  But all of a sudden, I find myself being very concerned about learning more.  I wonder if there is some kind of soil and/or water tests that I could have done to know for sure whether I have this problem.

If anyone else out there has a similar situation - a well or garden or home near railroad tracks- maybe we can share info on this thread.  Other people's thoughts and knowledge are welcomed as well!

Dang!  My greatest "gift of time" may end up being having identified the need to relocate! 


Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1982
Get extensive testing of your water

I really, really hate to say this, but some railroad beds have been treated with defoliants.  I am personally aware of instances of Agent Orange--the stuff that made vets sick on Vietnam-- being used by an unscrupulous company on the tracks. A jerk I knew 35 years ago sold that crap to railroads on commission. No sh*t.

Extensive testing of your water by an environment testing agency will let you know what's going on. Not just water testing: I recommend environmental testing. For this and all the reasons you mention above.

pinecarr's picture
Status: Diamond Member (Online)
Joined: Apr 13 2008
Posts: 2237
Thank-you, Wendy

I really appreciate your response.  Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap!!! 

On the "bright side", we still get our water from the municipal water system...This may be the fist time I'm actually glad about that!  But I still want/need to know what kind of chemical pollutants we (people), as well as the garden and fruit trees, may be being exposed to.

Thanks again, Wendy; good advice.

kd6iwd@gmail.com's picture
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 17 2011
Posts: 25
railroad ties

Here in Texas the railroad passing through San Angelo probably uses defoliants of some type because there are no live weeds growing on the tracks, there used to be lots of them before the tracks were reactivated from their abandoned status.



pinecarr's picture
Status: Diamond Member (Online)
Joined: Apr 13 2008
Posts: 2237

Thanks for your observation, Jim.  I wasn't even thinking about defoliants until Wendy mentioned them, just the treated railroad ties themselves.  Then I felt foolish for NOT thinking about them all this time!!  We develop such a blind eye to things/situations that we're accustomed to, that we don't even think to question them

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