Experiencing a termite swarm in New Orleans got me thinking about pest control.

In New Orleans, it’s not uncommon to see a termite-infested house dressed like a circus tent. Wrapped up, the house is pumped full of pesticides — in this case, the highly toxic sulfuryl fluoride (trade names include Vikane and Zythor).


According to the Extension Toxicology Network and Cornell University:

Sulfuryl fluoride is a toxic gas which acts as a central nervous system depressant. Symptoms of poisoning include depression, slowed gait, slurred speech, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, drunkenness, itching, numbness, twitching, and seizures. Inhalation may be fatal due to respiratory failure. Inhalation of high concentrations may cause respiratory tract irritation. Individuals with a history of chronic respiratory disease are at increased risk from exposure to sulfuryl fluoride. Skin contact with sulfuryl fluoride normally poses no hazard, but contact with liquid sulfuryl fluoride can cause pain and frostbite due to rapid vaporization.

Sulfuryl fluoride gas is odorless, colorless, does not cause tears or immediately noticeable eye irritation, and lacks any other property which would serve to warn persons of its presence.

Alternative, non-chemical ways of eliminating termites exist. They include treating a home with extreme heat; injecting liquid nitrogen into the walls to freeze the colonies; electrocution; and diatomaceous earth.

Whether it’s termites or another pest, ask your exterminator for a “material safety data sheet” that describes the toxicity and potential health effects of the products he is using. Discuss alternatives and Integrated Pest Management, a method that relies on the least-toxic solution and uses chemicals as a last resort.

An organization called Beyond Pesticides offers extensive advice on preventing and treating insect infestations. It will also help you find a pest control company that uses less toxic means of “managing unwanted critters and plants.”

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