Chances are, at least one house in your ‘hood is being treated for termites right now. And despite the festive clown-and-circus themed tent, the chemicals that go into the fumigation process simply aren’t funny.
Fumigation used to include chlorpyrifos, which can cause neurological damage and was phased out from fumigation beginning in 2010, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. (That didn’t stop farmers from continuing to apply 10 million pounds of the stuff annually to our crops, especially corn. But I digress.) What other toxic chemicals are part of the fumigation process?
What goes into fumigation?
Despite the tents, chemicals that go into the fumigation process aren’t funny. Methyl bromide was widely used in fumigation until the EPA determined that it depleted the ozone layer and violated the Clean Air Act and began phasing it out in 2005.
But until the EPA pulled the plug, these chemicals had been considered safe—for years. Here are a few of the many chemicals that are still being used in fumigation, plus links back to the organizations that have expressed concern about their safety:
phosphine: “Extreme actute toxicity via inhalation “ –EPA
1,3-dichloropropene: “Reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogen” –Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
methyl isocyanate “gas leak…resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 people” –EPA
formaldehyde: “probable human carcinogen” –EPA
iodoform: “acute toxicity in mice similar to that of methyl iodide” –CDC
sulfuryl fluoride: “poses an inhalation hazard” –Cornell University
Should you be worried?
Granted, the studies that yield these findings involve far higher concentrations than what you would be subjected to after fumigation. But the safety assessments also don’t take into account the fact that when you’re tenting, several chemicals are typically used at one time—and their interactions have never been fully measured, especially when it comes to kids.
Finally, there are studies that show the dangerous effects of pesticides in general: A UC Berkeley study published in 2002 found that the children of families who used professional pest control services at any time from one year before birth to three years after were associated with a “significantly increased risk of childhood leukemia.”
Four steps to safer fumigation
Unfortunately, the fumigation choice isn’t always yours — it could be your landlord’s. If you’re considering termite tenting, here are a few additional steps you can take to make sure the fumigation goes as safely as possible.
- Remember, even “eco fumigators” can use any of the chemicals on the list above; the word “eco” is marketing, not fact.
- Ask the company for a written description of the chemicals that are used in their fumigation process and do your own research on what’s involved. If the company won’t provide the list, find another company that will.
- Common sense—and industry guidelines—tell us that you must make sure your home is fully ventilated for several days after fumigation. You may want to add a few more open-window days to the company’s safety timeline before moving your family back home.
- Don’t rush it! Termite infestation takes a long time; the problem can wait while you measure your options—especially if you’re pregnant or have small children at home.
This post originally appeared on my column at the Huffington Post.
What to do after fumigation
February 2022: A concerned reader inspired an update to address what happens after fumigation — you can see her comment below.
My first recommendation? Don’t panic! Fumigation companies use gas — not powder — and report that the chemicals won’t stay on surfaces inside the home.
However, although I’m not a professional, I think that if you are tenting your home — especially if you have small children — you may want to take these additional steps, just for your peace of mind.
- Move food out of your cupboards and take the baby toys with you when you vacate the home.
- Follow the recommended time to stay away — most companies seem to say three days — and then, if you can, leave your windows open and turn fans on for an additional day or even two.
- Wash the sheets, vacuum and/or wet mop the floors, and wipe down all surfaces, including the inside of your kitchen cabinets, and wash plates, cookware, and eating utensils.
It sounds like a lot, but it helps to think of the process like a big spring clean! Again, I’m not a professional so consider this advice as from a friend.
What’s your advice?
If you’ve gone through or are preparing for fumigation, what’s your (friendly) advice? Please share in comments, below. Thanks!