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Simply put: When pest-control kills more than just pests in the house

Unregulated and indiscriminate use of pesticides in homes claimed another pair of lives in Pune over the last weekend. Indian Express explains what we are doing wrong with fumigation.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas |
November 6, 2015 12:42:51 am
pest control, pest, pesticides, pesticides death, Pune pesticides death, indian express Police said prima facie, toxic fumes released by a chemical intended to kill bedbugs caused the deaths. Viscera of the deceased is currently being analysed.

Is it confirmed that the couple found dead in Nigdi, Pune, inhaled noxious fumes following fumigation?

Police said prima facie, toxic fumes released by a chemical intended to kill bedbugs caused the deaths. Viscera of the deceased is currently being analysed.

Which chemicals are normally used in domestic pest control in India? Can they kill human beings in the normal course?

Until November 2014, the Faridabad-based Central Insecticides Board & Registration Committee (which is under the Directorate of Plant Protection, Quarantine and Storage in the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare, Ministry of Agriculture) had a list of 870 insecticides. Pyrethrin, deltamethrin, diazonin and fenitrothion are commonly used against cockroaches, mosquitoes, houseflies, bedbugs and rats. Insecticides are classified by toxicity, and colour-coded for users to dilute appropriately. Inhalation or ingestion of the chemicals, or prolonged exposure to them, can be life-threatening.

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Is there a law to regulate the operation of domestic pest-control agencies?

An Insecticide Act was passed in 1968 to regulate import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides. The power to enforce the Act came to the Agriculture Ministry from the Health Ministry in 1970. A Central Insecticides Board & Registration Committee was set up, and states were advised to appoint functionaries to implement the Act. A licence, which needs to be renewed every five years, is required for undertaking pest control operations. A district-level agriculture officer is the designated licensing and monitoring authority.

In effect, though, pest control operations remain by and large unregulated. A stocktaking exercise after the Nigdi incident showed only 450 pest control operators in Pune district have licences.

Three incidents, resulting in six deaths, have occurred since 2011 in Maharashtra. How has the government reacted?

Officials say the pest control operator in the latest case did not have a licence. Based on the findings of the investigation, the competent agriculture officer can file a complaint against the agency. Meetings of pest control operators are generally called after mishaps, and training aspects are stressed. By and large, the government has not shown any urgency or alarm at the deaths so far.

What precautions must be taken by those who get their homes fumigated?

To begin with, they must ensure the pest controller is licensed. Different pests must be targeted with different chemicals; the method of application is important too. Those who do the job must ideally wear protective clothing, gloves and masks. Food in the house must be stored away in the fridge, or at least covered. Windows and doors must be shut for several hours (depending on the strength of the chemicals) following fumigation — however, it is critical that after the specified time, they are opened to let out fumes and prevent possible skin and eye irritation.

Are there any long-term effects of exposure to the chemicals?

Internal exposure can lead to headaches, dizziness, nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhoea. Chronic exposure may result in loss of appetite, weakness and weight loss. Rodenticides containing zinc phosphide, if ingested, can cause severe injury to the liver, kidneys and the nervous system. There isn’t much Indian data on the subject, but a 2005 study by the US National Institutes of Health found a statistically significant increase in cancer mortality among municipal pest control workers exposed to a wide variety of chemicals.

What are the so-called “organic” pest control methods that companies advertise?

If not controlled, pests can damage or destroy households and gardens. Chemicals act quickly, but are harsh. Natural or organic pest control methods, on the other hand, do not harm the environment. A tulsi-based repellant for mosquitoes carries fewer health risks than mosquito coils, mats or liquids that contain allethrins. Organic pest control methods, however, need laborious preparation; there is also not enough awareness about them.

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