Fumigant Safety: The difference between life and death Back »

Written collaboratively by Adam Varenhorst, Patrick Wagner, and Amanda Bachmann.


Fumigants are used to manage insect pests in agricultural fields, grain storage facilities, and residential environments. These products are considered restricted use. Individuals must have a valid South Dakota commercial or private applicator license to purchase and apply restricted use products. It is important to remember that fumigants are toxic chemicals – in addition to killing the intended pest, they can harm humans if used improperly. Failure to follow label directions, misuse, or carelessness regarding their use may lead to serious injury or death.

Dangers of Fumigant Misuse

An example of fumigant misuse occurred in Texas at the beginning of 2017 and demonstrated how dangerous these products can be. Four children were killed after inhaling large amounts of phosphine gas, which is produced when a fumigant product with the active ingredient of either aluminum or magnesium phosphide comes into contact with moisture in the air. Officials are still investigating the details of this incident; however, there is evidence that the phosphine gas levels were greatly elevated after water was directly applied to the fumigant that had been placed under a home for pest management.

This event brings to light the importance of always reading and following pesticide labels. In addition to the residents of the home, first responders required medical attention after inhaling the deadly gas. When using fumigants, warning placards must be placed around the treated area. The directions for placard placement are provided in the label to ensure that residents or emergency personnel are aware of the hazards associated with the applied product.

Safety Considerations

When using fumigants or any pesticide, always follow the label and wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) that is listed on the label. This generally includes chemical resistant gloves, a respirator with organic vapor/acid gas cartridges, long shirt, long pants, and eye protection. Depending on the fumigant and levels of the associated gas in the environment, either a forced air or self-contained air respirator may be required.

When following the precautions and instructions provided on the labels, fumigants can be used safely for the management of insect pests. Conversely, the misuse of these products can prove fatal.

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