TERMITE REPORT : Homeowner’s Survival Guide in War on Destructive Pest : Extermination: Consumers want less-toxic methods to destroy insects that cause $300 million in damage each year.

<i> Boyer is a Riverside free-lance writer. </i>

When Donna Conder learned she had termites in her 28-year-old house in Orange, she was worried. Allergies and health problems made the 38-year-old nurse want to avoid traditional fumigation, where a tent is placed over the house and toxic gas pumped in.

So she was happy to try a new method--Isothermics’ Thermal Pest Eradication--that kills termites with hot air.

The house is tented and hot air pumped in for several hours until it reaches a temperature lethal to termites, said Jedd Bennett, vice president of Isothermics Inc., the Anaheim company that licenses the method.


Conder removed some items from the house before the October treatment, including fruit, plastics and an antique organ, but said nothing was damaged and she was pleased with the process, which cost $1,260.

“I would highly recommend it,” she said, even though it might cost 10% to 30% more than fumigation. “Can you put a price on your health?”

Most people aren’t as sensitive to chemicals as Conder. But an increasing public distrust of pesticide safety is pushing researchers to devise new methods to eliminate termites.

No one expects alternative methods to totally replace traditional treatments. Instead, exterminators are likely to be using a variety of techniques in the future.

The pest-control industry, prodded by consumer demand, is interested in new methods that are less toxic but still effective in the war against termites, which do more than $300 million in damage each year to California homes.

Government agencies are also placing new restraints on pest-control methods as they learn more about long-term health effects.

The result is a changing and often-confusing array of choices for consumers, who must weigh risks, effectiveness and cost in deciding how to eliminate their termites.

It’s a big problem because termites are a fact of life in Southern California. If you live here long enough, they’ll find your house, said John Munro, director of education for the industry trade group Pest Control Operators of California Inc. in West Sacramento.

In fact, termites are increasing right along with the human population in Southern California. Scores of new subdivisions have transformed previously inhospitable areas into a smorgasbord for the insects, said Michael Rust, entomology professor at UC Riverside.

Termites like water, warmth and wood, so housing tracts are perfect for satisfying their appetites. In fact, anything made of cellulose is tasty to them, including newspapers, books and cardboard.

Orkin Pest Control recently ranked the Los Angeles area fifth on its list of top 20 termite locations, said Judith Donner at Orkin headquarters in Atlanta. Orkin estimates that termites ate enough wood in the L.A. region last year to build 11 new homes. That gets expensive. Californians spent $309 million in 1986 on termite treatment and structural repair, according to a 1988 study by the pest-control trade group.

Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties represented $129.4 million of that, Munro said.

In Los Angeles County in 1986, the average termite-extermination treatment cost $640, the trade group reported. California has 1,510 pest control companies, the state says.

Extermination methods depend on the type of termite. Southern California has two main types, drywood and subterranean. You can have both at the same time, requiring two types of treatment.

Finding the termites can be difficult without close inspection, even for experts, and it can be especially hard if they are in parts of the house hidden from view.

Subterranean termites build up mud tubes along the exterior of a house as they travel from the ground up to the wood. Drywood termites push out waste pellets near damaged areas. Both termites swarm to start new colonies and then leave discarded wings lying near their new home.

To find hidden termites, professionals may use probing tools to examine damaged wood, listening devices to pick up termite sounds or fiber optics to see inside walls.

Beagles are also trained to sniff out termites. TADD Services Corp., which operates in the Bay Area, says its canine inspectors are more accurate than humans because they can wriggle into areas people can’t reach and aren’t fooled by signs of past infestation.

The pooches make a pawing motion only if they smell live termites, said spokeswoman Dorothy Taylor. She said TADD dogs are “100% accurate--they’re the only animals with malpractice insurance.”

But University of Florida associate professor Nan-Yao Su, a termite expert, isn’t so sure.

“I haven’t seen anything that’s 100%,” he said. “They’re always hard to detect.”

In Southern California, the termites you’re more likely to find are drywoods, especially if you live near the coast, entomology professor Rust said. They live inside the wood of your house.

Traditional treatment for drywood termites is fumigation with Vikane (sulfuryl fluoride) or methyl bromide. Both are poisonous gases that can penetrate into the wood of a house and kill virtually all termites--and anything else--present. Because they’re odorless, tear gas (chloropicrin) is used with both fumigants to warn people of the danger.

However, each year a few people in California die inside houses being fumigated. Generally, they are burglars, drunks, transients or suicides who forced their way into tented buildings despite warning notices, according to the state Structural Pest Control Board, which regulates pest-control operators. Since 1980, California has had 25 fumigation deaths.

Fumigation and airing out the house afterward usually takes about 24 hours, during which time people, pets and plants have to stay out. Food and medicine must be removed, sealed in metal or glass containers or put in plastic bags--including items in the refrigerator or freezer.

Some government and industry officials are suggesting that consumers remove food and medicine or use metal or glass containers, because current plastic bags don’t keep out all the fumigant. Manufacturers are now developing bags that offer better protection. But, scientists say, exposed food won’t make you sick.

Methyl bromide is the more commonly used structural fumigant in California, said Dennis Gibbons, senior industrial hygienist for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. It was used about twice as often as Vikane in 1987, the most recent data available.

Fumigations usually cost at least $1,000 to $1,200 and can go as high as $2,000, depending on the cubic footage of the house and the fumigant. Methyl bromide is cheaper than Vikane, Scheffrahn said, so it can be more profitable for an exterminator to use, with the risk of occasionally having to replace ruined carpet padding.

Methyl bromide can react with certain items, including rubber padding, fur coats, leather and cinder block, and produce a permanent odor, Scheffrahn said. “It really stinks.”

Rhonda Olson found that out the hard way.

In July, she was planning to move into a just-purchased Anaheim house with her husband and two children. The home was fumigated as part of the sale. When the Olsons went to do some work before moving in, they immediately noticed a foul odor from the carpet.

She tried scrubbing it. Vinegar, borax, baking soda--nothing worked. Finally, an exterminator told her that the smell was from methyl bromide reacting with the rubber carpet pad and it wouldn’t come out. The fumigation company sent someone the next day to replace the carpet pad, and the smell soon disappeared, Olson said.

Exterminators should test the carpet pad if they aren’t sure what it’s made of, said Herb Pencille, general manager of Hydrex Termite Control of Southern California.

Even that isn’t foolproof, though, and Pencille said plenty of exterminators have had to replace carpet padding, himself included. He now generally uses Vikane to avoid the problem, which costs consumers 10% to 15% more, he said.

But methyl bromide could work fine in an empty house, he said.

It’s important to remove items the methyl bromide might react with and to have good fan circulation in the house to avoid too much fumigant in any one area, said Bob McKeand, an executive with methyl bromide’s maker, Great Lakes Chemical Corp.

If the home is aired out properly, it shouldn’t smell, said Jerry Campbell, California Department of Food and Agriculture supervisor of registration. Exterminators must check the inside air with a measuring device to make sure it’s safe to return. If people have any problems afterward, they should call their exterminator or the local agricultural commissioner, and see a doctor if they feel sick.

Los Angeles County has about 55,000 fumigations a year and only receives about 12 to 15 odor complaints annually, according to the Agricultural Commissioner’s office, which investigates allegations of pesticide misuse and pesticide-related illnesses.

Generally, it’s pesticide misapplication or not following safety procedures that cause illness, or in rare cases, death, said Frank Davido, who investigates pesticide problems for the Environmental Protection Agency.

However, some people are more sensitive to chemicals and odors and may feel unwell even if the pesticide was applied properly, Davido said. But it’s hard to determine whether symptoms are caused by fumigation, because they often mimic other illnesses, such as flu.

Symptoms of pesticide poisoning include headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, coughing and tremors. People who have allergies should ask beforehand which fumigant is to be used and consult with their doctor, he said.

If done right, fumigation should not be hazardous and is a very effective way to kill termites and other bugs in the house, said Assistant Prof. Rudolf Scheffrahn, termite researcher at the University of Florida.

However, he said the recommended time for airing out a house might need to be lengthened, and he advises residents to leave their windows open overnight when they return after a fumigation.

TERMITES AT A GLANCE Amount of annual termite damage in California: More than $300 million

Amount of annual termite damage nationwide: Almost $1 billion

Top five U.S. areas with worst termite problems:




Washington, D.C.

Los Angeles

Probability of having termites in Southern California: 80% to 100%

California termite inspections per year: 1 million

California termite treatments per year: 500,000

Exterminator licenses revoked in 1988-89: 32 licenses

Number of termites on earth: 200 quadrillion, or three-quarters of a ton per person. (Most termites live in the tropics.)

Favorite foods: Wood, cardboard, paper

Natural enemies: Ants, nematodes

Positive effects: Break down dead trees in forests and return them to the soil.

Negative effects: Damage buildings and emit methane gas, contributing to global warming.

SOURCES: Orkin Pest Control, United States Department of Agriculture, Pest Control Operators of California Inc., National Pest Control Assn. Inc., Structural Pest Control Board, National Center for Atmospheric Research.

HOW TO TELL IF YOU HAVE TERMITES * Subterranean termites build mud tubes from the soil up the side of a house. To find out if they’re from past or present termites, try knocking them down and see if they reappear. If they do, the termites are busy in your house.

* Drywood termites kick out tiny waste pellets in the area they’re working. Look for sawdust-like debris.

* Both types of termites swarm to start new colonies. Subterraneans swarm in the winter and spring, usually after a rain. Drywoods swarm on warm fall days. Both discard their wings and leave them lying near their new home.

* Wood damaged by termites will sound hollow when tapped, because much of the inside has been eaten away. Termites also make sounds by bumping their heads against tunnel walls when disturbed.

HOW TO CHOOSE AN EXTERMINATOR * Call the Structural Pest Control Board at (213) 620-2255 or (916) 920-6323. Staff members can tell you if a company you’re considering has had any complaints in the last two years, and how they were resolved. Ask if the company has a current license.

* Check with your local Better Business Bureau to see if anyone has complained about the company.

* Ask friends and neighbors to recommend a pest control operator who gave them good service.

* Make sure the company has a permanent address and phone number so you can contact someone later if you notice any problems.

* Understand how the recommended treatment works and what steps are necessary. For example, fumigation requires that plants and other items be removed from a home. The exterminator should be willing to answer your questions and provide information about the treatment. Companies are required to disclose the type of pesticide used.

* Get two or three inspections and compare recommendations and prices. If the reports differ widely, ask inspectors why. If you’re not satisfied with the explanation, contact the pest control board.