Fumigation releases a toxic chemical as a gas to rid your home of a pest, usually an insect pest. Fumigation does not involve misters, foggers or aerosols, as they are suspensions of particulate matter. Over time, more effective, less toxic chemicals have replaced pesticides that were once commonly used, reducing some hazards of house fumigation, but not removing them entirely. (1)
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Many chemicals used as fumigants are poisonous to humans. Most fumigants are classified under the EPA’s “highly acutely toxic” category. They potentially cause neurological, respiratory, reproductive, immune system and endocrine system effects. Symptoms of exposure vary widely, from irritation of the eyes, lungs and throat to vomiting and convulsions. Chemicals that affect humans may also affect pets and houseplants.
Some chemicals are odorless. With other pesticides, users experience a delay in detecting their odor, and you can inhale their fumes without realizing. As a result, fumigants such as sulfuryl fluoride are used in conjunction with other chemicals, such as tear gas (chloropicrin). The tear gas serves as a warning agent, triggering symptoms, so that people who come into accidental contact with the fumes are aware there is a danger and can leave the area or seek help.
During fumigation, you may need to leave your home for several days, and your home will need to air out until a pest control professional determines that the fumigant has reached a safe level. This can sometimes take 24 hours to accomplish. During the time you are away from home and while your home is open to ventilate, your belongings may not be secure. Not only are you at risk of being robbed, but if children or their pets wander into the area, their health and safety could be at risk.
During fumigation and subsequent venting of your home, fumes are released into the environment. Some of the chemicals used in fumigation have negative effects on the environment. Methyl bromide destroys the ozone layer. Sulfuryl fluoride, a greenhouse gas, is 4,800 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Some pesticides react with materials during exposure. For example, methyl bromide reacts with rubber and aluminum and it can damage electronic equipment, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Despite the dangers, fumigation is the only way to treat some types of pest infestation effectively. For example, fumigation is proven to eliminate all drywood termite infestations. The University of Missouri Extension reminds the public that only licensed structural pest control professionals should use fumigants in buildings. This is due to the extreme hazards involved in using the chemicals.