Understanding the Hazards of Using Railroad Ties in Landscaping

Railroad Ties in Landscaping
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Railroad ties are a popular fixture in landscape design. After all, it is a good way to prevent old materials from being wasted. If the railroad is no longer being used, many homeowners think it might be good to take the materials and use them to edge your garden beds or to support retaining walls.

However, it has been recently discovered that railroad ties are an environmental hazard. Depending on the era when the railroad was constructed, the ties may or may not be contaminated with creosote. Creosote is a byproduct of coal tar that was commonly used as a wood preservative.

Creosote is also a common byproduct of woodsmoke that can build up inside wood stoves and chimneys, which is why many of these fixtures and stones come with a gauge that indicates if this dangerous substance is building up in the system.

The Dangers of Creosote

The following risks are associated with exposure to creosote:

Increased risk of cancer

Chemical burns

Eye irritation

Respiratory problems

Kidney issues

Liver issues


Mental confusion


Creosote is also soluble in water, which can contaminate your local groundwater. Its effects do not stop at your home as they can spread throughout the community and local ecosystem. The local wildlife and your pets would also be at risk. The worst part is that creosote is very difficult to break down and can remain in your soil and groundwater for decades.

Chromated Copper Arsenate

Another chemical that people use to treat railroad ties is Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA). CCA also treats wood to keep it resistant to microbial buildup and insect damage. However, the combination of chromium, copper, and arsenic has created a deadly combination. Despite this, it is still used in railroad construction in the modern age.

Exposure to CCA can cause arsenic poisoning. Burning CCA-treated wood can also be hazardous to your health.

Proper Disposal

The first rule of railroad tie disposal is that they should never be burned. If the wood has been treated in any way, it may releaser toxic fumes and gases that are hazardous to human health.

Even just the ash and sawdust might cause respiratory problems if you have the misfortune of inhaling them. If handling recycled wood of unknown origin, make sure to use a mask or respirator. If at all possible, use proper protective clothing to avoid contamination.

What You Should Use Instead

If you truly desire that rustic feel, there are plenty of alternatives that neither poison living beings nor cause toxic chemicals to leach into the environment. For example, old barn beams are a perfect alternative so long as they are not treated with any machine or motor oil.

It might also be useful to tap into your local community so you can find ethically sourced and chemically safe wood for your landscape design.

Final Thoughts

You might feel a little disappointed to learn this about railroad ties, but there are plenty of other choices to achieve that beautiful rustic feel. Barn wood and older structures that have been torn down, for example, are a great source of wood to be refurbished. At least you won’t have to worry about your health and the health of your local ecosystem.

If you’re looking for help with landscape design in Edmonton, give us at HML Landscape a call. Our landscape and construction team can help your home property achieve the look of your dreams. For more details, give us a call at (780) 460-2088 or email at info@hmlconstruction.com.

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