With international shipping a mainstay in our global economy, ever wonder how America keeps foreign insects, rodents, and fungi at bay? So did we. What we found is both fascinating and disturbing. It was fascinating to uncover a side of the importation business that is very rarely discussed in America today. It was disturbing in the simple fact that to kill potential pests, many toxic methods are used and are accepted as a silent, necessary evil. Try to ask a retailer about a particular chair and what method was used to eradicate pests that may have tried to hitch a ride across the seas. Chances are you will get a very confused expression. Since this information is just part of the import process it is never shared with consumers.
It begs the question of whether or not we, as consumers, really need every conceivable fresh fruit and vegetable available in the dead of winter. Or do we really need to have that imported table from the nearby big-box store. That question is left for you to answer for yourself.
In order to keep this relevant to Dapwood customers, we focused on furniture and not the many other imported goods like fresh fruit, flowers, nuts, wool, clothing, etc. which are subjected to these and/or other treatment methods.
As with any item imported into the US, there are two issues at hand-
1. Product- the actual items being sold
2. Packaging- the materials used to protect the product while in transit
While we could go into vast details about International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) ISPM 15 rules which apply to wooden pallets, wooden crates, wood cases, etc., we will continue to focus on the product side of things and leave packaging for another day.
As one might imagine there are many rules and regulations for importation of wooden goods
There are two treatment options for wood and wood products. Heat treatment involves the use of a kiln dryer or dry heat, such as a microwave energy dryer. Chemical treatment involves the use of a surface pesticide, preservative, or methyl bromide fumigation.U.S. Customs and Border Protection
The manual that is most appropriate for wood furniture is the 274 page long Miscellaneous and Processed Products Import Manual created by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Caution and thoroughness is rightly justified by the USDA in the introduction:
“one destructive pest might be enough to start a pest outbreak that can cause millions of dollars of damage to crops, trees, flowers, or lawns.”
For treatments and procedures, one should consult the 934 page long USDA Treatment Manual. This manual goes into detail on methods to treat shipments chemically (Methyl Bromide, Sulfuryl Fluoride, Phosphine, Aerosols, Dips, Dusts, Sprays) as well as nonchemical treatment (Heat, Cold Treatment, Irradiation).
The ideal fumigant would have the following characteristics:
Highly toxic to the target pest
Nontoxic to plants and vertebrates (including humans)
Easily and cheaply generated
Harmless to foods and commodities
Insoluble in water
Easily diffuses and rapidly penetrates commodity
Stable in the gaseous state (will not condense to a liquid)
Easily detected by human senses
Unfortunately, no one fumigant has all the above properties, but those used by APHIS and PPQ have many of these characteristics.U.S. Department of Agriculture Treatment Manual Page 23
If you do some research, you will find several methods must be used in order to kill all pests. For wood products, it is combination of surface spray, methyl bromide (MB) fumigation and Sulfuryl Fluoride (SF) fumigation.
Surface application is accomplished using chemicals such as chlorpyrifos and cypermethrin. Chlorpyrifos is classified as an organophosphate which was first registered in 1965 by Dow Chemical to control insects. Exposure to chlorpyrifos has been linked to neurological effects as well as autoimmune and developmental disorders and has been banned in residential products (except child-proof ant and roach bait) but still commonly used in agricultural and industrial applications. Chlorpyrifos residue is often found on fruits and vegetables and the EPA has recently proposed to revoke all chlorpyrifos tolerances.
Cypermethrin is a synthetic pyrethroid first registered by FMC Corporation in 1984. Like other pyrethroids, cypermethrin is a fast-acting neurotoxin which causes paralysis in lethal doses.
Methyl bromide fumigation has traditionally been the preferred method of fumigation because it provides good kill rates and is relatively cheap. Methyl bromide (CH3Br) is used in its gas phase and is colorless, odorless and heavier than air. MB is recognized as an ozone-depleting chemical and has been largely phased out worldwide in the early 2000s because of the Montreal Protocol. However, the U.S. has successfully lobbied for critical-use exemption which allows the U.S. to continue using methyl bromide until it is completely phased out- supposedly in 2017.
Sulfuryl Fluoride is another fumigation chemical whose use has grown recently because of MB decline. Sulfuryl Fluoride (SO2F2) is also a colorless and odorless gas which is heavier than air. SF has proven to be a greenhouse gas that is much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2) and has an atmospheric lifetime of 30 to 40 years.
In order for any fumigate to do its job, it must come in contact with the pest. Therefore, plastic or waxy wrappings must be perforated, removed or opened to allow the chemical to penetrate adequately. During this process, fumigates will bind either chemically or physically on or within the product. This process is called sorption and has three types- absorption, adsorption and chemisorption. Sorption rates vary with products, temperature, chemical concentration and duration. Wood products are known to be highly sorptive and may develop strange odors that are difficult or impossible to remove. It is not known how products subjected to sorption effects human health.
Since these chemicals are designed to be highly toxic to living creatures, they will cause human harm. Like all chemical exposure, the short and long-term human health effects largely depend on concentration levels, exposure time, age, health, genetic makeup and amount of exposure to other chemicals. Regulatory agencies try to come up with models and lab studies to assess the risks but unfortunately it is an incomplete picture. Therefore, assumptions have to be made when policy is created. The only real way to determine if the policy is good policy is to monitor to see what happens. Over time researchers, health specialists and scientists collect this data to fill in the picture.
As crass it sounds, a chemical which may be considered safe for treatment today, may very well be deemed too risky in the future and banned for use. In the 1940s DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) was liberally used in the US and around the world to effectively control insect-borne human diseases like malaria and typhus. It wasn’t until the 1962 book Silent Spring written by Rachel Carson did DDTs use come under fire. Not until 1972 did the EPA issued a cancellation order for DDT based on irrefutable evidence of human and environmental damage.
When complex issues involving regulators, large chemical producers, chemical users and the general public are at play, change comes very slowly and unfortunately for some, it comes too late.
Several effective pest control methods are used at US Customs with fumigation being the most common action.
Treatment chemicals are highly toxic by design.
Fumigation chemicals are hazardous to port employees and increases risks of neighborhoods outside buffer zones.
Many of these chemicals are detrimental to our ozone layer and atmosphere.
Residual effects of these chemicals are of concern, especially in children.
In the end, we hope that all families take a long, hard look at what they purchase and where it comes from. If it is an imported product, be aware that some type of “bug bombing” was performed on the item in order to keep unwanted pests from entering the U.S. Besides increased human health risks, these chemicals damage and pollute our environment. The risk does not outweigh the reward especially when there are domestic products that do not have any of these potential dangers.