In a report that is the first of its kind, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has come to the unshocking conclusion that "bug bombs" -- which fill indoor air with pesticides to kill cockroaches, fleas and other bugs -- are not very good for people's health.
One state, New York, has already seized on the findings and is moving to ban the use of these "total release foggers" by all but professional licensed pesticide applicators. Until that ban takes effect, and in most other states, these products are readily available to the public.
They are designed to release a cloud of poison -- usually pyrethrins (derived from chrysanthemum flowers) or pyrethroids (synthetic chemicals that mimic those compounds), according to the CDC -- to fill every nook and cranny of an indoor space. Problems resulted when people failed to get out of doors before the fogger started pumping pesticides into the air, when people returned to the rooms before the fogger was done discharging, or if too many foggers were used in a relatively small space. The fog easily fills lungs, too.
Using them next to open flames, like ovens, also resulted in explosions of fire that caused serious injury.
The CDC report looked at 466 illnesses and incidents reported in eight states over the course of five years, from 2001 to 2006. It's likely, according to the CDC, that the number of actual incidents is much higher, since most would have gone unreported to authorities.
"A total of 372 (80%) cases were classified as low severity, 84 (18%) cases were moderate severity, and nine (2%) were high severity," according to the CDC report. "One death was classified by the Washington State Department of Health as suspicious. (This death occurred in a female infant aged 10 months who was put to bed the evening of the day her apartment was treated with three TRFs. The infant was found dead the next morning.) Twenty-one persons were hospitalized for 1 or more days (range: 1--35 days), and 43 persons lost time from work or other usual activities because of their illness or injury."
Here, in the words of the CDC, are three case studies that demonstrate the risk posed by bug bombs:
In March 2008, a woman aged 38 years from Washington visited an emergency department with headache, shortness of breath, nausea, leg cramps, burning eyes, cough, and weakness after she was exposed to fumes from three TRFs (in 6-ounce cans) deployed nearly simultaneously by a downstairs apartment neighbor. One TRF each was set off in the crawlspace beneath the house, in the neighbor's apartment, and in the hallway. The building was an old house converted into apartments, with a single ventilation system connecting all apartments. The neighbor had orally notified some of the tenants but not the patient. The patient recovered completely within 3 days, and the illness was classified as low severity. The TRF dispensed a toxicity category III pesticide product that contained permethrin and tetramethrin as active ingredients.
In September 2007, a man aged 34 years who worked as a maintenance worker at an apartment complex in Michigan forgot to disarm the smoke detector before activating a TRF. Because the building elevator shuts down if a smoke detector is triggered, the maintenance worker (without respiratory protection) reentered the mist-filled apartment to disarm the detector. He had onset of cough and upper airway irritation approximately 1 hour after exposure, contacted a poison control center, and did not seek additional medical care. His symptoms resolved within 24 hours, and his TRF-related illness was classified as low severity. He was exposed to a toxicity category III pesticide product with pyrethrins, cyfluthrin, and piperonyl butoxide as active ingredients.
In August 2007, a man aged 54 years in California simultaneously set off nine TRFs in his small 700 square foot (6,000 cubic foot) home. Each 1.5-ounce TRF can was designed to treat 5,000 cubic feet of unobstructed space and released a toxicity category III pesticide product containing cypermethrin. When the man returned 6 hours later, a strong odor prompted him to open the doors and windows and to vacate. Entering a second time 4 hours later, the man had onset of headache, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. He visited an emergency department, where he was treated symptomatically for TRF-related illness with a nebulized anticholinergic bronchodilator, intravenous hydration, and intravenous medication for headache, nausea, and bradycardia. He completely recovered after 36 hours, and his illness was classified as moderate severity.
To its credit, the CDC not only suggested better labeling of these products, but suggested advocating integrated pest management, a set of strategies that aim to elminate the habitat, food and other needs of pests, rather than resorting to chemical poisons. The report also makes clear, however, that continued use of these products should occur only if neighbors in apartment houses and other multi-unit dwellings can be notified.
For information about dealing with pests in the least-toxic way possible, check out Beyond Pesticides' database of pest control methods.
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