Creosote ban 2023: How XRF ensures wood-treatment alternatives make the grade

Creosote is a highly effective wood treatment product that has been used for hundreds of years. However, negative effects on the environment and human health have led to creosote’s use being limited over the past few decades. This year sees the latest legislation on creosote usage – it will be illegal to sell creosote-treated fencing products for agricultural or equine use. 

Creosote is produced from tar (from wood or coal) and is an excellent timber preservative, protecting against fungi and pests and extending the life of the wood product by decades. For this reason, its use has been widespread for utility poles, fence panels, railway sleepers and many other outdoor uses of timber. However, creosote contains bi- and poly-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), including substances such as benzo(a)pyrene that has been classed as a group 1 carcinogen. Creosote is also classed as highly toxic and causes soil and water contamination that is then ingested or absorbed by animals and plants.  

The 2023 creosote ban 

Creosote use has been limited by legislation since the beginning of the century. For example, consumer use of creosote to treat domestic wood, such as fence panels, has been banned in the EU since 2003. In 2013, further controls were introduced and it was no longer permitted to sell creosote on the EU market without specific authorisation.  

Effective April 30, 2023, the ban on the sale of creosote-treated products intended for agricultural or equine use has been enforced. Furthermore, February 28, 2023, marked the definitive deadline for individuals and businesses engaged in treating wood for sale in agricultural or equine applications.  

The only accepted uses of creosote-treated wood are for railway sleepers and utility poles. 

Alternatives to creosote? 

As creosote is so harmful, yet so effective a preservative, legislation has tended to be introduced once viable alternatives are available (hence why utility poles and railway sleepers are currently exempt from the ban). Also, with the ultimate blanket ban almost inevitable, wood-treatment manufacturers have been working on alternatives for years and many such products are available.  

Alternative methods of preserving wood have been extensively explored, such as heat- and pressure-treating to change the wood properties on a fundamental level. Other methods of preservation include applying a physical barrier to the wood. But for preserving fence panels and posts that are exposed to all kinds of pests, fungi and extreme environmental conditions, a liquid preservative that acts in a similar way to creosote is the best solution. 

For example, hot oil-based copper treatments are proving highly effective against fungi and insects and are being authorised for use in a variety of industrial applications. These products are readily absorbed by wood and exhibit good levels of water-repellency.  

Where does analysis come in? 

There are many areas throughout the wood-treatment lifecycle where analysis plays a key role:  

  • Determining the correct chemical composition of the wood-treatment chemicals during manufacturing and prior to application 
  • Ensuring treated wood has sufficient surface coverage and penetration of the preservative product 
  • Determining the presence and type of wood treatment applied to end-of-life timber products so that they can disposed of according to local legislative guidelines 

These analyses require a detailed chemical composition breakdown of both liquids and solids and XRF (X-ray fluorescence) technology is the perfect method to give reliable and accurate results.  

XRF analysis for wood treatment applications 

XRF analysis is a reliable and effective method of verifying the composition of wood treatment products and treated timber for quality control or legislative purposes. XRF offers many advantages over other analysis techniques, because:  

  • It’s a non-destructive technique that can be used on products before shipping with no detrimental effect
  • Solids, liquids, powders, and pastes can be analyzed
  • It requires little, if any, sample preparation and no hazardous chemicals are used
  • Testing is fast, with easy-to-understand results presented in seconds
  • If the equipment is maintained and calibrated, the results are accurate and precise long term

You can rent XRF equipment, purchase your own analyzer or use a third-party testing house that specializes in XRF analysis. For small sample sizes, a benchtop analyzer is perfect, and many can analyze several samples at once, so you can set the analyzer up, load your samples and let the machine do the rest. This is ideal for a manufacturing scenario where you are testing a high volume of wood-treatment liquid for quality control purposes. 

If, however, you are checking large structures or you need to analyze end-of-life timber products, you will need to take the analyzer to the timber, and a portable, handheld XRF analyzer is ideal for this task. Many are just as accurate as the benchtop models and allow for rapid testing and sorting of wood that needs to be disposed of correctly. 

Find out more

For more information, or to discuss your own wood-treatment application, get in touch to speak with one of our application experts.  

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Date: 10 August 2023

Author: Christelle Petiot, Product Manager - Benchtop XRF

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