28 Apr 2011

Health Alert – Burning Old Rail Sleepers

Posted by bcsands

The Firewood Association of Australia (FAA) has issued a health alert to consumers about the danger of burning old rail sleepers. The warning, sent to councils throughout NSW, Victoria and South Australia, has been prompted by upgrading of rail tracks, which has led to old sleepers appearing on the firewood market.

Burning sleepers as firewood is hazardous due to the materials that they may have absorbed over the years and which can be released when the sleepers are burned. These include asbestos, oil and herbicides. Small stones and grit buried in the sleepers can also explode when heated.

BC Sands does not sell any pre-used wood such as sleepers – all our wood is sourced from sustainable forestry.

The full text of the FAA alert is below:

“Due to the recent upgrading of rail tracks throughout NSW, South Australia and Victoria a large quantity of old timber rail sleepers have been replaced by concrete sleepers.  Regrettably some of these old sleepers are being cut into 300 mm lengths and offered for sale as firewood.

The Firewood Association of Australia Inc. (FAA) is the peak representative body for the Australian commercial firewood industry.  The FAA has long since banned the sale of old rail sleepers by its members for the following reasons:

1.        Used railway sleepers may contain asbestos.  Even though asbestos train brake linings were phased out in the mid 1980’s, old sleepers may pre-date this time.  Fibres from the asbestos brake linings can become trapped in cracks in the sleepers.  As long as they are not disturbed they are safe, but they will be released when the sleepers are burnt.  These fibres will collect and concentrate in the ash in the bottom of a fireplace, heater or wood oven and they can be deadly.  There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos fibres.

2.        Almost all used railway sleepers are contaminated to some extent with herbicides, heavy metals, grease and oil.  When used railway sleepers are burnt, these substances are vaporised, releasing odours and potentially harmful fumes.  These fumes will be absorbed by any food cooked with the wood, for example in pizza ovens, barbecues etc.  If these fumes escape from the heater/fire into the room they can cause respiratory health problems.

3.        Small stones from the track ballast become stuck in used sleepers.  When heated in a fire these small stones can explode, creating a hazard in an open fire or cracking the glass of a slow combustion heater.

Some non-FAA members claim that they have conducted tests showing that contaminants are at safe levels, but our investigations show that the sampling methods used for the tests do not reflect real life combustion conditions and likely exposure levels.  Therefore the results of these tests should not be relied on.  We understand that no testing for asbestos has been carried out.

Even though our members do not sell this product they are concerned about the potentially negative image that this source of wood will create for the firewood industry as a whole.

We believe that local and state governments should be vigilant this winter season to ensure that this potentially hazardous product is not sold to the public, or to commercial enterprises.

If you have any questions concerning this matter please do not hesitate to contact the FAA on 1300 131 481 or by email info@firewood.asn.au.”

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