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Popular termite fumigant is also a greenhouse gas

January 21, 2009 |  2:00 pm


Just mentioning the word "termite" is enough to strike fear in a homeowner's heart. The munching, crunching pests cause billions of dollars in damage to homes each year, which is why so many Americans fumigate. But one of the most popular termite fumigants, sulfuryl fluoride, also may be causing damage -- to the atmosphere.  According to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine, sulfuryl fluoride is a potent greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere far longer than previously thought. The UCI study, published Jan. 21, estimates that the chemical lasts a minimum of 30 years and may linger as long as a century. Earlier studies had estimated the chemical's atmospheric life to be as little as five years.

"It's very important to know how long it lasts in the environment," said Sulbaek Andersen, lead author of the study. "If it only lasts a year, then it doesn't matter so much, but if lasts a long time, you start having a bigger impact."

How big is that effect? According to Andersen, the chemical's annual use in California creates emissions equivalent to the carbon dioxide produced by 1 million cars. California accounts for 60% of the sulfuryl fluoride used in the world, Andersen added. Though that percentage may seem high, it could go even higher if sulfuryl fluoride's use expands to farming. Sulfuryl fluoride is not currently recognized as a greenhouse gas. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a toxin because it's primarily used to kill bugs.

"This is a precautionary paper," Andersen said. "We have an early warning here that we're using this compound and it sticks around the atmosphere far longer than we thought and it happens to be a greenhouse gas. It's a wakeup call to the industry and a question to policy makers: How do you want to proceed from here?"

-- Susan Carpenter