GREAT BARRINGTON — Beth Rose smelled it every time she drove past the railroad tracks on Van Deusenville Road in Housatonic.
"Anyone know what that horrible smell is?" she asked her neighbors on a Facebook page for Housatonic residents.
Rose told The Eagle that while the "toxic" smell has eased up recently, for about a month this fall she got a whiff of the odor every time she drove by.
"I would want to roll up my windows immediately," she said.
Something is stinking up the neighborhood, and residents now know the culprit — a big stack of new railroad ties treated with creosote, a chemical pesticide derived from coal tar that is used to preserve wood.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is apologizing for not paying attention to neighborhood concerns.
Creosote is rated as a "probable human carcinogen" by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"I started to smell them right after they moved [them] in there," said Jeanne Bachetti, who owns four homes across the road from the tracks, one of which she lives in during the summer. "Sometimes we get a propane smell from [nearby] AmeriGas, so I couldn't tell. Then it dawned on me — that's not gas."
Bachetti, who lives in Sheffield in the winter, said the ties arrived in May and stayed on the rail cars through August, until they were unloaded in September.
The deliveries are part of MassDOT's initial $21.4 million upgrade to the 37-mile segment of freight rail track that it purchased from the Housatonic Railroad Co. in 2015.
The full upgrade, expected to take three years to finish, includes 60,000 ties and the repair of two bridges.
All those tie deliveries means a lot more noxious creosote wafting up and down this rail corridor. And it's something happening on railroads nationwide, according to reports from throughout the U.S.
Newly delivered stacks of ties have alarmed residents who, in some cases, developed symptoms associated with exposure to creosote.
In Middleboro, for instance, residents who live near a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority commuter line described headaches and dizziness after a load of ties was delivered last year for a replacement project. MassDOT removed the ties after angry residents flooded local and state offices with complaints.
Nogales, Ariz., residents who live near the Union Pacific Railroad described headaches, nausea, vomiting and stinging eyes last year after a tie delivery sat near the tracks for several months, according to a local newspaper.
In both instances, the odor also had entered homes. In Housatonic, that has sometimes happened.
"I mostly smelled it outside," Bachetti said of what she describes as a "sharp tar smell."
"Maybe once or so I could smell it in the house, but you just get so used to it that you don't really notice, and you don't pay attention to it," she said.
In late September, one of Bachetti's tenants called her to complain. Bachetti wonders whether the vapor has anything to do with an increase in her mother's breathing problems from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Bachetti says that while she can't make the link between the vapor and the aggravation of her mother's condition, she wonders why her mother, 88, recently has required a second liter of oxygen every day, when before the ties came, she only needed one.
Like a lottery ticket
Risks associated with "ambient" exposure from new ties like that described by residents is a bit like playing the lottery, said Richard Peltier, an atmospheric chemist who runs Peltier Aerosol Lab at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst's Division of Environmental Health Science.
"There's always the chance of winning the lottery if you just buy one ticket," he said. "It's probability — it's chance. There's always a risk of developing health effects, or even cancer from these ambient exposures."
A risk profile is based on a host of factors that include a person's current health and diet.
Peltier used the lottery example again.
"People who breathe this aren't necessarily going to come down with cancer," he said. "It's just like saying, `Just because you buy a lottery ticket doesn't mean you're going to win it.' "
Coal tar creosote is used for road paving, roofing and aluminum smelting, among other things. As a wood preservative, it is the most widely used in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
It is restricted to industrial use by trained workers, who are at the highest risk for acute and long-term health problems.
About 70 percent of all creosote is used for rail ties, according to Drew Toher of Beyond Pesticides, a Washington-based advocacy group that, since 2002, has been urging the EPA to suspend and cancel creosote products.
"There are a range of alternatives that have been available for some time now," he said. "We'd strongly recommend the use of composite railroad ties."
Toher said his organization conducted a life cycle study that found composite ties to be more cost-effective than wood ties. He also said recycled steel and/or concrete are other options, though concrete ties can only be used on new stretches of railroad.
Toher said the risks from coal tar creosote to public health and the environment are "unnecessary," and that in 2003 the European Union banned creosote-treated wood, with some exceptions for rail ties. In 2013, EU regulations for creosote use grew stricter.
There are 300 to 10,000 chemicals in coal tar, but it is the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, phenol and cresols, that are threats to human health.
In 1984, the EPA banned all uses of creosote except for wood preservation, citing, in part, higher incidences of skin cancers among workers who handle it. Right now, the agency is reviewing its creosote regulations, part of routine reviews of pesticides every 15 years, according to the EPA's website.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection typically steps in to the rail tie issue only when disused ties are discarded improperly, according to spokesman Edmund Coletta.
Last year, the agency fined two railways for illegal disposal, and another rail tie investigation is underway, he said.
While the DEP sees "off-gassing" from railroad ties as a "nuisance odor," it did get involved in the Middleboro episode, after residents complained. Coletta says that the DEP recommends, as it did in that instance, that local health boards be consulted and that ties are moved away from residential areas and covered with a polyethylene sheeting that reduces the odors.
In Housatonic, that stack of ties is about to be redistributed along the track where they will be installed, said MassDOT spokeswoman Judith Riley.
Riley suggested that the ties do come with a benefit — they will make the Berkshire Line safer and more reliable.
But the agency, having dealt with this in Middleboro, also expressed regret.
"MassDOT apologizes for the fact that the railroad failed to be more attentive to neighborhood concerns when it unloaded this material," Riley said.
Peltier said the intensity of the smell will fade, just as residents have noticed.
"The gasses do evaporate over time; once they're exposed to fresh air and baking in the sun, it will drive the chemicals out," he said.
Peltier suggested that the rail ties are yet another in a barrage of similar exposures in the course of daily life.
"People like that `new car' smell," he said. "But that `new car' smell is in the same class of chemicals as in creosote."
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.