Extension Toxicology Network

Toxicology Information Briefs

A Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Oregon State University, the University of Idaho, and the University of California at Davis and the Institute for Environmental Toxicology, Michigan State University. Major support and funding was provided by the USDA/Extension Service/National Agricultural Pesticide Impact Assessment Program.

EXTOXNET primary files maintained and archived at Oregon State University

Revised 9/93.



An employee of a home pest control applicator enters the premises of a home or office building to carry out a contract for ant, cockroach, termite, or other insect control. "What are you using?" they are asked. "Don't worry. It's not dangerous!" they reply. In addition to being irritated at the non-answer, the customer becomes fearful and the credibility and competence of the pest control company is questioned.

Our office occasionally receives calls from such customers and must provide them with considerably more information. An applicator recently did this in the wrong office-the office of Chemical Information Systems, Inc. in Baltimore, Maryland. CIS is a company which provides on-line electronic database service on the properties and toxicity of many chemicals, including pesticides, to their subscribers. They checked it out and their reaction, which was sent out across the nation, is reproduced below. We urge pest control companies to not ever respond with a non-committal: "don't worry, it's safe," type of answer. Tell the customer exactly what pesticide you are using.

We recommend that each pest control applicator's employees carry a set of 3x5 cards which provide precise information about which chemical is being used, how much, and what the consumer might expect to experience. Such a card could, for example, read as follows:


"The Sanitary Pest Control Company Information Card on Pyrethrin. This insect control treatment is a spray of 1% pyrethrum. We are using a total of 64 oz. of spray or 2/3 oz. of pyrethrin in your home. The amount of chemical we are using, where we are placing it, and how we are applying it are such that there will not be any harm to the occupants from the pyrethrin. However, there may be a noticeable odor from the solvents in which the chemical is dissolved. This will not be much different than the odor from using the same amount of paint or varnish, though it may last a little longer. If the odor is irritating or nauseous to you, provide as much ventilation as possible by opening windows or doors. If the odor lasts for more than two days at irritating levels, please call us. We will come to check it out. Pyrethrin can cause a contact dermatitis in a few hypersensitive or allergic individuals. If you believe you may be affected, please discuss this with us. We believe pyrethrin provides a safe and thorough pest control for your situation. We can, however, use a less effective chemical which may be more suitable for use in your home. Phone 555-0000 with any questions."



(Names have been omitted from the following article to protect the innocent and others.)

A couple of days ago we heard the sound of a drill outside our office, and went out to discover a workman who said he was getting ready to treat the building to eliminate termites. With what?, we asked. He told us. Then he added cheerily, "Don't worry, it's not dangerous."

Sure, sez we -- immediately withdrawing inside to check the stuff on the CIS. And, sure enough, the substance was covered in perhaps ten different CIS databases. The listings indicated no problem in low concentrations, but some showed "non-toxic" effects like coma and death from severe overexposure to the stuff.

Within an hour or two, an unavoidable acetone-like odor permeated the first floor of our building. We didn't think we were in any danger, but some of us began to experience headaches and eye and throat irritation.

Curiously enough, the smell was entirely inside the building -- outside, cement plugs blocked the holes through which the stuff had been injected around the foundation. Consequently, we opened windows and doors, and some of us retreated to the second floor where the odor was considerably less noticeable. The office joke was that employees feeling the onset of coma or death should inform the management and try to avoid passing out on their computer keyboards. People made dark comments about hanging a cage with a canary in the area where the smell was strongest -- or, better than a canary, a termite or two. The odor has now, several days later, diminished considerably, and, all in all, it was no big deal -- but we keep thinking about the guy who applied the stuff. As far as we could tell, he applied it properly -- and, therefore, presumably understood what he was doing.

But did he really think the pesticide was totally harmless? Or had he been told to say that by his employer? Obviously he didn't realize who he was talking to in this case, and almost no other company in the world could have accessed the resources that we did in order to double check his claims.

But anyone might have experienced the headaches and irritation that we did -- and would they then not begin to doubt the workman's bland reassurance that "it's not dangerous?" And if they found out that his first statement hadn't been correct, would they subsequently believe any accurate explanation from him or his employer?

In terms of applying the stuff, nobody did anything wrong here; the effect on anyone other than the termites was inconsequential. We assume the exterminators are professionals, and that their applications always work out that way. So what's the point of not telling people up front what effects they'll notice and what precautions to take? Stonewalling, it seems to us, simply lays a train of mines that sooner or later is going to go off.

-- Reproduced from THE CIS NEWS, March/April 1988

DISCLAIMER: The information in this brief does not in any way replace or supersede the information on the pesticide product label/ing or other regulatory requirements. Please refer to the pesticide product label/ing.