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Daily News Blog

28
Jun

Deaths from Building Fumigation Raise Long-standing Health Concerns, Calls for Ban and Adoption of Alternatives

(Beyond Pesticides, June 28, 2023) An autopsy report from the Broward County Medical Examiner’s office in Florida found that acute exposure to the fumigant sulfuryl fluoride resulted in the death of two pest control workers from Pompano Beach. After the fumigation of a Pompano Beach warehouse in April, three workers fell ill, and two died after pesticide application. The highly toxic chemical can be used by the chemical pest control industry for killing termites, powder post beetles, old house borers, bedbugs, carpet beetles, moths, cockroaches, rats, and mice. In addition to being highly acutely toxic, sulfuryl fluoride, as a fluoride compound, can cause various chronic adverse health effects, including cancerendocrine disruptionneurotoxicity (reduced IQ), and reproductive damage.

This case represents the broader issue of how toxic chemical compounds can enter the body, causing physiological damage. In fact, just last March 2023, a case report article published in Frontier in Public Health confirms one of the first reported deaths from inhalation of the fumigant 1,3-dichloropropene (1,3-D or Telone) during work, resulting in acute renal (kidney) failure, hyperkalemia (high potassium levels in the blood), and brain edema (swelling). Considering over 300 environmental contaminants and their byproducts, including pesticides, are chemicals commonly present in human blood and urine samples, toxicity risk increases when entering the body. Therefore, cases like this highlight the importance of understanding the risk of death associated with acute pesticide exposure and poisoning both to applicators and consumers. 

The autopsy reports 64-year-old pest control operator Leon Johnson, who was found dead in front of his home, suffered from acute sulfuryl fluoride poisoning. Mr. Johnson and his co-worker Jason Lambert started feeling nauseous and vomiting while standing outside the fumigated warehouse. After being sent home, both parties passed away from this exposure. The medical examiner found sulfuryl fluoride in Johnson’s system and on his clothing, ruling his death accidental acute pesticide exposure.

The case of sulfuryl fluoride presents a familiar pattern of widespread chemical use without proper knowledge of health and environmental effects before implementation and a failure to take regulatory action on known hazards after being allowed in commerce. Sulfuryl fluoride, registered for termite and other wood-boring pest extermination in 1959, gained additional attention as a potential alternative to methyl bromide, a broad-spectrum insect fumigant. Ninety-nine percent of structural fumigation treatments use sulfuryl fluoride. However, researchers have identified concentrations of sulfuryl fluoride in the atmosphere due to the chemical’s long half-life and greenhouse warming potential (GWP).

Epidemiological studies show that fumigation workers using sulfuryl fluoride exhibit neurological effects as the chemical is a toxic gas that targets the central nervous system. Studies report reduced performance on cognitive and memory tests, central nervous system depression, diminished sense of smell, respiratory irritation, shortness of breath, pulmonary edema, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, itching, slurred speech, extremity numbness, muscle twitching, seizures, and death from respiratory failure. Additionally, sulfuryl fluoride is 3.5 times heavier than air, staying closer to the ground or floor, which may present higher exposures to individuals whose breathing zone is closer to the ground.

Despite being outside the warehouse building during fumigation, Mr. Johnson still encountered chemical exposure. Thus, the autopsy report attributes the mishandling of pesticides to the poising incident. This mishandling can incorporate a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for pesticide applicators, improper tenting of the structure, or residues on clothing, skin, and hair. These chemicals do not remain in one place as fumigants and as a class of pesticides are most prone to drift, highly volatile, highly toxic, and have very high application rates. Therefore, those who may consider this issue outside of their concern note that a recent study focusing on the Western United States found that fumigant pesticides (in this case metam sodium) have close links to county-level cancer rates. Not only does sulfuryl fluoride cause respiratory stimulation response and central nervous system inhibition after inhalation, but the volatile organic compound also contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone and poor air quality.

Recent work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) demonstrates North America is the leading global source of sulfuryl fluoride emissions in 2019. Following the 2022 report, “Termite Fumigation in California Is Fueling the Rise of a Rare Greenhouse Gas,” researchers demonstrate that sulfuryl fluoride increases greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Although most sulfuryl fluoride emissions in the U.S. occur in California, most global emissions also occur in California. According to the most recent data from the California Department of Pesticide Regulations, sulfuryl fluoride is the 12th most used pesticide applied to sites across California, with over 2.9 million pounds used in 2018 for structural and agricultural pest control and over three million pounds used statewide in 2021. Although 50 to 60 percent of sulfuryl fluoride emissions mainly occur in California, reports like this suggest that other states like Florida may also produce emissions that remain unaccounted for by current National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chemical tracking. The risk of multiple chemical contaminants in the atmosphere increases as global warming progresses. Melting glaciers can release persistent organic pollutants into waterways. Recently, pesticides and fertilizers overtook the fossil fuel industry in environmental sulfur emissions. Thus, health and environmental concerns will increase significantly, especially for individuals and ecosystems more vulnerable to the toxic effects of chemical exposure.

The history of sulfuryl fluoride has pitted one chemical use against another instead of incentivizing movement away from chemical dependency to viable alternative and organic management practices. Beyond Pesticides and other organizations maintain that without the phase-out of sulfuryl fluoride, there is little incentive to upgrade and adopt modern practices that forego hazardous chemical use.

There are many viable alternatives to sulfuryl fluoride and methyl bromide fumigation. These alternatives include temperature manipulation, atmospheric controls, biological controls, and less toxic chemical controls (diatomaceous earth). Many existing commodity storage facilities are too old and outdated to prevent pest infestation. This ineffectiveness leads to a reliance on toxic fumigation. Thus, a clean, regularly-maintained storage or processing facility can easily keep facilities pest-free.

There is a lack of complete understanding of the etiology of pesticide-induced diseases, including predictable lag time between chemical exposure, health impacts, and epidemiological data. Pesticides themselves can possess the ability to disrupt neurological function. Pesticides’ impact on the nervous system, including the brain, are hazardous, especially for chronically exposed individuals or during critical windows of vulnerability and development. Although occupational and environmental factors like pesticide exposure adversely affect human health, regulatory reviews have numerous limitations in defining real-world poisoning, as captured by epidemiologic studies in Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database (PIDD) and Daily News Blog. The adverse health effects of pesticides, exposure, and the aggregate risk of pesticides showcase a need for more research surrounding occupational and residential pesticide exposure to make complete determinations. Existing information, including this report, supports the clear need for a strategic shift away from pesticide dependency. For more information on the effects of pesticide exposure on neurological health, see Beyond Pesticides’ PIDD pages on brain and nervous system disorders, including dementia-like diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, and other impacts on cognitive function

Beyond Pesticides advocates a precautionary approach to pest management in land management and agriculture by transiting to organicBuyinggrowing, and supporting organic can help eliminate the extensive use of pesticides in the environment and from your diet. For more information on how organic is the right choice for consumers and the farmworkers who grow our food, see the Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Local 10 News

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2 Responses to “Deaths from Building Fumigation Raise Long-standing Health Concerns, Calls for Ban and Adoption of Alternatives”

  1. 1
    Aman Says:

    Thank you for your kind words! I’m glad you found the article informative and thought-provoking.

  2. 2
    Lauri Biern Says:

    Florida uses Sulfuryl Flouride . EVERY DAY I SEE ANOTHEF TENT. SAYING DEADLY POISON TENTING. THEY USED IT RIGHT ACROSS FROM MY HOME IN A VERY DMALL DEVELOPEMENT.. homes very close to one another..NO NOTICE TO WLDERLY NEIGHBORS OR ANYONE!! I saw it go up and called, no one did a thing!!! II LEFT MY HOUSE AND STAYED AT HOTEL , BECAUSE I HAVE AN IMMUNE PROBLEM!! THEY DO HUNDREDS OF THESE TENTINGS IN FLORIDA PER WEEK. TERMINIX ALONE DOES A HUNDRED A DAY. I WAS TOLD. THIS MUST STOP. A FEW DAYS LATER MY MORINGA TREE TURNED BLACK. SO MANY PEOPLE IN HERE HAVE DIED OF CANCEF. IT STAYS IN THE ATMOSPHERE UP TO 30 YEARS. ITS HORRIFYING ..PLEASE HELP #BanDeadlyPoisonTenting.STOP THE INSANITY..The destruction the deaths! Sincerely Lauri Biern

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