(Beyond Pesticides, February 14, 2018) Total release foggers, otherwise known as bug bombs, received updated labels from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011 as part of efforts to reduce accidental poisonings, but a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that EPA restrictions are a public health failure. Bug bombs pose a significant risk of acute illness to individuals even when attempting to follow new label instructions. Beyond Pesticides has long called for bug bombs to be banned, as there are a myriad of non-toxic alternative strategies to successfully manage household pests.
CDC’s report, Acute Illnesses and Injuries Related to Total Release Foggers, updates a previous study released in 2008 which found significant safety concerns about bug bombs and ultimately prompted EPA to revise the labels of these products. At the time, CDC found a total of 466 illnesses or injuries associated with the use of total release foggers between 2001-2006. Incidents ranged from failing to leave an area after releasing the bug bomb, reentering the premises too early, use of too many products for the space provided, and even explosions related to the ignition of aerosols released from the product.
Bug bombs are small cans primarily comprised of an insecticide, often a synthetic pyrethroid, a synergist such as piperonyl butoxide (PBO), and an aerosol propellant. In addition to the explosion/fire risk, if the aerosol product is used in an unattended home near a pilot light or other spark-producing appliance, both synthetic pyrethroids and PBO pose acute and chronic human health risks. PBO is added to pesticide formulations to increase the toxicity of synthetic pyrethroids, and has been linked to childhood cough. Peer-reviewed research associates synthetic pyrethroids with externalizing and internalizing disorders, ADHD, and delayed cognitive and motor development, and premature puberty in boys. Not only can bug bombs acutely poison, but once applied these chemicals can persist in the home for over a year, putting individuals and families at risk of chronic exposure and subsequent health issues.
In response to the report and several high profile incidents, including a 10 month old boy in Williamston, SC who died after his mother used several bug bombs in their home, EPA conducted an evaluation of total release foggers. The agency determined at the time that incidents were “overwhelmingly minor in nature,” resulting from “a few basic errors” and concluded that “label improvements can mitigate these risks.” This response was strongly criticized by Beyond Pesticides and other health groups, who called for increased education on alternative pest management strategies, and bans on the residential use of bug bombs by the general public. The New York City Department of Health asked EPA to make these products restricted use, and the state of New York began moving towards similar actions at the state level, but to date no substantive restrictions have been placed on bug bombs by EPA or any particular state.
CDC’s new data reveals that EPA’s attempt to reduce bug bomb illness and injury through label changes was unsuccessful. Looking at records from 2007-2015, a total of 3,222 unique cases of illness and injury were reported. The report indicates, “No statistically significant reduction in overall incidence of TRF [total release fogger]-associated injuries and illnesses was observed in the first 3 years after the label revisions took effect.” Reasons why changed little from the previous report, with CDC indicating the most reported causes were failure to vacate a treated premise, and early reentry.
Rather than clarify, EPA’s new labels may have caused more problems. For instance, EPA added pictures to the labels to show required steps. One step indicates that, after fogging, individuals should allow the premises to air out. However, the labels do not provide guidance on how to minimize exposure when ventilating, so many are injured during that process. And. as is too often the case, even following EPA’s new product labels did not eliminate illnesses. The CDC report notes, “Some users ventilated treated premises for the recommended length of time or longer, but still became ill, suggesting that ventilation might be inadequate or the recommended period might be insufficient to fully eliminate TRF [total release fogger] residuals before occupancy.”
The continued poisoning and injury of individuals from bug bombs due to insufficient protections is a regulatory failure that EPA has repeated in numerous arenas. How has the agency attempted to address the pollinator crisis? New labels. Problems with Monsanto’s dicamba herbicide drifting onto other farm fields and damaging crops? New labels. Beyond Pesticides is calling for the establishment of an alternatives assessment within EPA. Under an alternatives assessment, when pesticides are found to have adverse effects on human health or the environment, focus shifts to employing less-toxic alternatives to their use, rather than attempting to mitigate risk by revising labels that very few read or adequately comprehend.
Before reaching for a bug bomb to manage household pests, consider the factors that led the pest into the building in the first place. Most common pest problems can be successfully dealt with by eliminating pest entryways into the home (i.e. caulking cracks/crevices, doorsweeps, repairs, etc.), and sealing off access to food, water, and shelter (i.e. clean often, remove clutter, seal food in airtight containers, tight lid on trash can). Remaining pests can be dealt with through least toxic products such as boric acid bait stations and desiccating dusts. Also remember that many pests, such as bed bugs, display widespread resistance to the pyrethroid insecticides contained in most bug bombs.
Beyond Pesticides ManageSafe webpage can assist with many common household and landscape pest problems to prevent the need to use toxic pesticides. For detailed information and specific pest questions individuals can call 202-543-5450 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.