What you don’t know about phosphine could kill you

Somewhere on the banks of a little creek in Ellicott City Maryland lies a skeleton of what was once a beautiful bird, how do I know this? Because I killed it 25 years ago and although I’m sure most if not all of it has been reclaimed by nature nothing will erase the memory of an early attempt at catching rats and instead I killed a non targeted animal and I regret it to this day.

Recently, two girls in Utah were killed and all implications seem to be directed at a pest control application gone bad. Personally I cannot stop thinking about this tragic event and I want so desperately to find out more. My heart goes out to the family of the children of course and it’s impossible for me to imagine what they are going through. Children should outlive their parents but life is not always fair. I think about the pest control company owner and what he’s thinking. While the final cause has not been officially determined it might as well be in the court of public opinion and the business he’s worked for so many years to build up will need a miracle to recover. The technician who up to this point is nameless undoubtedly has spent countless quiet hours thinking about what has happened. Is this person sad, defiant, confused and bewildered? For now we just don’t know but any normal human being would easily go through this range of emotions and more with such a horrific occurrence.

In reading the articles on line the owner of the pest control company was pretty emphatic that the label was followed;

“He put the pellets in the ground, plugged the holes with newspaper, and then put dirt over the holes to keep the gas in the ground,” Wilson explained.
He insists his licensed technician did everything according to protocol and EPA standards, but he did not know where the tech put the pellets in relation to the home.

Wilson also made mention of “the manual” on the use of this chemical but exclaimed “it was not the law.” Well I am no expert on the law in Utah or anywhere for that matter but I did some digging into both the manual and the label and came away a bit confused, This is some of what I found. Phostoxin (phosine) is a restricted use chemical that carries a Danger signal word which alerts the user of the acute toxicity of the product being the highest on the scale. The labels I found were 3 to 4 pages and were not much help. The manual is 30 plus pages and was only a little better.

#1- In the manual for phostoxin (the product most likely used that contains phoshine) you cannot find specific instructions on just one page for applications to burrowing pests. Phoshine seems to be mainly a grain fumigant for insects and the label goes into great detail about this application.
#2 – The manual indicates a difference between pellets and tablets. One tablet will produce 25 ppm of gas while it would take 5 pellets to do the same. (we do not know what form was used) For rodent burrows the label calls for 10-20 pellets per burrow or 2-4 tablets.
#3 – The manual states that all applicators must know how to; protect workers and nearby persons from exposure to levels above the 8-hour Time-Weighted Average (TWA) of 0.3 ppm or the 15 minute TWA Short- Term Exposure Limit (STEL) of 1.0 ppm phosphine. Also how to transport, aerate, to determine when respiratory devices should be worn and how to dispose of spent product. (this section was vague in that it’s context was fumigating buildings but this knowledge seemed to be a requirement regardless)
#4- The manual speaks of at least two ‘trained’ people for fumigations using this chemical are present during application. One of the two must be certified but again it is in the direct context of buildings, silos or grain storage facilities and does not specifically state yards or open areas where this incidence took place. It also speaks of the mobility of the gas, temperatures NOT to apply (41 or below) and ability of gas to seep through surfaces like concrete and leaking OUT.
#5- Finally on page 31 (section 26.1) specific instructions are given for rodent burrow application.

This product may be used out-of-doors only for control of burrowing pests.
THIS PRODUCT MUST NOT BE APPLIED INTO A BURROW SYSTEM THAT IS WITHIN 15 FEET (5 METERS) OF A BUILDING THAT IS, OR MAY BE, OCCUPIED BY HUMANS AND/OR ANIMALS, ESPECIALLY RESIDENCES. Document any burrows that open under or into occupied buildings, and do not apply to these burrows. In addition, check for any other source through which the gas may enter into occupied buildings as a result of application to burrows. If there is any way gas can move through pipes, conduits, etc. from burrows, do not treat these burrows. Prior to treating a rodent burrow on a property containing an inhabited structure, the applicant must provide the customer (e.g.tenant, homeowner, or property manager) with a MSDS or appropriate sections of the Applicator ’s Manual.

What I took away from this quasi research project was a feeling of disappointment. Setting aside what we think happened in Utah, here is a highly toxic product that kills quickly and the labels and manuals have to be written in such a way that even a seasoned professional had to read and reread the information just to get a BASIC understanding of what is needed to safely use this product. I realize the manual insists on prior training and that’s good. It even goes so far as to make it a requirement for the applicator to have read both the label and the manual.

In addition to the plan, the applicator must read the entire label and Applicator’s Manual and follow its directions carefully.

I just can’t help but wonder if such smart people couldn’t have condensed this writing or simplified it just a bit so as not to confuse the average person. Sure the information is in there- but with the great loss a family in Utah is going through right now apparently by the use of this product; couldn’t we begin to make this chemical safer with clearer directions so we can follow it’s instructions carefully as it tells us to do?

About The Bug Doctor

Jerry Schappert is a certified pest control operator and Associate Certified Entomologist with over two and a half decades of experience from birds to termites and everything in between. He started as a route technician and worked his way up to commercial/national accounts representative. Always learning in his craft he is familiar with rural pest services and big city control techniques. Jerry has owned and operated a successful pest control company since 1993 in Ocala,Florida. While his knowledge and practical application has benefitted his community Jerry wanted to impart his wisdom on a broader scale to help many more. Pestcemetery.com was born from that idea in 2007 and has been well received. It is the goal of this site to inform you with his keen insights and safely guide you through your pest control treatment needs.
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  • James Butler

    I definitely agree with you on this. It was such a shame to hear of this loss. I posted on the PCTonline forum that it looks like this was a clear misapplication by placing the tablets too close to the house. I didn’t review the label as closely as you did, but from briefly reading over it, I bet the technician wasn’t even aware of the 15 foot buffer zone. Sometimes I think the writers of labels forget their target audience. Sure they have to cram all this info together, but having a label that takes a PhD to read it surely doesn’t help. At one time, I had created cheat sheets for all the products I carried, with only the most important information regarding application and safety information. I kept this in a small binder in my vehicle and when needed could quickly find what I needed. If manufactures would provide something similar we might not have incidents like this.

  • James Butler

    I definitely agree with you on this. It was such a shame to hear of this loss. I posted on the PCTonline forum that it looks like this was a clear misapplication by placing the tablets too close to the house. I didn’t review the label as closely as you did, but from briefly reading over it, I bet the technician wasn’t even aware of the 15 foot buffer zone. Sometimes I think the writers of labels forget their target audience. Sure they have to cram all this info together, but having a label that takes a PhD to read it surely doesn’t help. At one time, I had created cheat sheets for all the products I carried, with only the most important information regarding application and safety information. I kept this in a small binder in my vehicle and when needed could quickly find what I needed. If manufactures would provide something similar we might not have incidents like this.

  • The Bug Doctor

    Very well put-

    I think you may be onto something with the ‘cheat sheet’ and why not? We carry booklets and flash cards for ants etc… so why not for our safety too. Excellent suggestion.

    Thanks for reading
    The Bug Doctor

  • The Bug Doctor

    Very well put-

    I think you may be onto something with the ‘cheat sheet’ and why not? We carry booklets and flash cards for ants etc… so why not for our safety too. Excellent suggestion.

    Thanks for reading
    The Bug Doctor

  • Verlaryder

    Those girls were killed by the techno-nerds who were functionally incapable of writing the application instructions and associated hazards in plain english

  • I agree with you from the word “Functionally” on…. but I think more it was a sequence of events that had a devastating, tragic and completely AVOIDABLE consequence.

    Thank you for you comment– I can hear and share the anguish you have.

  • Bigbrythebugguy

    I cant help but be inclined to beleve that in the end the tech and the owner are responsible. I was trained to read the label read the label read the label!!! ( Thank you Western exterminatoers and Jim Chase) and to follow what it says to the letter….and if it is unclear, get it clear and do nothing until it is! Fumigation is our most dangerous means of extermination, and should only be used by a person who knows what they are doing and the repercussions therin. My heart goes out to not only the family (GOD be with them but also to the owner and the tech they will carry this with them forever.

  • You are right– The end responsibility will fall on the tech and owner. While you were taught correctly and I believe the overwhelming amount of techs were too, it isn’t much help that the labels are written in such a way as to hinder safe application as I believe this ‘pair’ of instructional booklets’ have been.