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Termites! Is there a way to get rid of them without turning my house into a gas chamber?


Pablo Plastic
May 19, 2008 3:06PM (UTC)

Dear Pablo,

A friend just found out that he has major termites in his house. He has no choice but to take steps to get rid of them. That said, what is the least environmentally offensive method of doing this? And on a purely theoretical note, if he had the ability to not do anything and eventually rebuild the house, is it easy to assume that fumigating would do less harm on a large scale than building an all-new house?

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This is a common dilemma for homeowners, particularly those in warm coastal regions such as California, Texas and Florida. According to the National Pest Management Association, termites cause $5 billion in damage each year. Eradicating termites by fumigation involves flooding your house with toxic gas, but inaction can lead to structural failure of a timber-framed building. Luckily there are alternatives to turning your house into a gas chamber so that you can protect your investment, your health and the environment.

Traditional fumigation involves removing food, plants, pets and you from the home. Then the house is surrounded with an impermeable circus tent that keeps in any number of toxic gases, including formaldehyde (a probable human carcinogen), methyl isocyanate (think: Bhopal), phosphine (which can kill at low doses) and hydrogen cyanide (used in gas chambers). By law, a warning agent called chloropicrin (tear gas) is released as well to prevent the accidental poisoning or asphyxiation of people in the event of leakage or incomplete ventilation. Fumigation gases are contained by the tent during fumigation but are vented to the atmosphere once the treatment is completed. Thankfully methyl bromide has been banned due to its ozone-damaging properties.

If all this talk of methyl-ethyl death has you scared, and you are thinking of letting the termites have their way and simply rebuilding the structure, think again. Believe it or not, termites are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the EPA, termites produce approximately 11 percent of the global methane emissions from natural sources, or 20 million metric tons, from the digestion of wood. By allowing the termites to digest your house, you are releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the lumber used to build a new house absorbed as trees. That's because methane is about 23 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2.

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So what is an eco-conscious homeowner to do? The only alternative solution for your whole house is a high-temperature heat treatment, also known as thermal pest control. After temperature-sensitive items, plants, pets and people are removed from the building, a powerful heater is used to raise the inside temperature of the house to 160 degrees Fahrenheit for up to six hours. This essentially cooks the pests and their eggs without leaving behind any residual poison or releasing any unpleasant gases to the atmosphere (aside from the CO2 created by the heater). Many pest control companies offer heat for a comparable cost. While heat is generally as effective as fumigation, in some cases a few termites may survive or personal belongings may be damaged. It is, though, more convenient: Fumigation can lock you out of your home for a week; after a heat treatment, you can often move back in within a day.

Many homes with termite infestations are treated by whole-house fumigation or heat treatment, even though the termites may be localized in only one part of the house. A thorough up-front inspection may identify parts of the house that can be spot-treated rather than treating the whole house. These spot-treatments include electro-gun, microwave and freezing options. An electro-gun essentially electrocutes the termite colonies through the timber; the microwave uses frequencies to cook the pests, an option similar to heat treatment; and freezing involves injecting liquid carbon dioxide into the affected areas. Each of these spot treatments is a sound alternative to fumigation. By the way, the University of California at Davis has a great Web site about pest management, with a detailed section on termites, including a handy chart and an analysis of the chemicals used in fumigation.

So I hope your friend chooses the most environmentally friendly and effective treatment to meet his needs. Thanks for your question!

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Pablo Plastic

Got a question about the environment? Ask Pablo at AskPablo@Salon.com.

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