Fumigation tent kills bugs but attracts burglars – HazMat Response considerations


There has been a noticeable uptick across the country of residential burglaries in homes undergoing fumigation. Since the thieves know that no one is home, and their conduct inside the home is obscured by the tent, criminals don respirators and risk the dangerous atmosphere to steal the unsuspecting homeowners belongings.

I spoke with representatives from law enforcement in the Los Angeles area who state that the opportunistic thieves don respirator masks easily obtained though home improvement stores and enter the fumigation tents despite the presence of the dangerous chemicals.  A quick search revealed several incidents nationwide (specifically in the termite prone areas) over the last few years.

Whenever a Police incident becomes a HazMat, or visa versa, there is usually a ‘grey’ area which can cause confusion on scene.  Take the time to look at these incidents from a training perspective, the next one could be in your first in.

How to be a good HazMat resource

From a HazMat perspective it is not uncommon for HazMat teams to be deployed to assist law enforcement when the occupant, or neighbors, notice something amiss at the location and suspect foul play. In most cases the human pests have left the scene but law enforcement still needs to do their due diligence and make sure the area is clear of bad guys and investigate the crime. Some large jurisdictions have Police Officers trained for HazMat entry, but some I spoke with defer the building search to the SWAT team who are trained exclusively to find hiding suspects – just perhaps not in IDLH atmospheres.

Technical reference – the fumigation company is the best source but what if they are not available? Sulfuryl Fluoride is commonly used for structural fumigation and has several trade names: Vikane, Zythor, Master Fume. Chloropicrin is used to serve as a warning and deterrent, at 0.15 ppm it will cause burning eyes and tearing. (Click the links for MSDS’s)

Sulfuryl fluoride (SO2F2), also known as Vikaneª (99.8 percent by weight sulfuryl fluoride and 0.2 percent inerts), was developed by Dow Chemical in the late 1950s as a structural fumigant. Vikane® is currentllly manufactured by DowElanco, which supplies 100 percent of the Vikane® structural fumigation market. Since first marketed in the US in 1961, it has been used to fumigate more than one million buildings, including museums, historic landmarks, rare book libraries, government archives, scientific and medical research laboratories, and food-handling facilities. Sulfuryl fluoride is used in approximately 85 percent of all structural fumigations.

According to the California Pest Control Board, the time required for fumigation varies. A fumigation
can take anywhere from six hours to one week depending on the type of infestation, dosage, temperature, size of the structure and other factors.  Time is a critical factor in determining the potential concentration under the tent – this should be written on the signs on the outside of the tent.


The warning agent -  Chloropicrin, is typically introduced to the building prior to application of the fumigant sulfuryl Fluoride.  Chloropicrin at low levels of about 0.15 ppm causes burning eyes and tearing.
Chloropicrin serves to warn of the presence of the odorless and colorless sulfuryl
fluoride and is a deterrent to intruders. Chloropicrin is removed from the
building with the sulfuryl fluoride during aeration.

Has anyone died under a fumigation tent?  I found a few documented cases, here are two from the National Library of Medicine’s Hazardous Substance Databank:

Two fatalities occurred when the owners of a home re-entered after the dwelling had been fumigated with 250 pounds of sulfuryl fluoride. The concentration to which the occupants were exposed was not determined. The man died within 24 hr, and the woman expired 6 days after exposure. Signs of intoxication included severe dyspnea, cough, generalized seizure, cardiopulmonary arrest (in the male), and weakness, anorexia, nausea, repeated vomiting, and hypoxemia; ventricular fibrillation and diffuse pulmonary infiltration were also reported in the female.
[American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, Inc. Documentation of the Threshold Limit Values and Biological Exposure Indices. 6th ed. Volumes I, II, III. Cincinnati, OH: ACGIH, 1991., p. 1471]

A 25 year old man with postmortem blood alcohol level of 0.156% was found lifeless in a residence that had been fumigated with sulfuryl fluoride under canvas.
[Hayes, W.J., Jr., E.R. Laws, Jr., (eds.). Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology. Volume 2. Classes of Pesticides. New York, NY: Academic Press, Inc., 1991., p. 564]

Who is going down range?  Has the scene been cleared for bad guys?

Giving anyone a field promotion to HazMat could be a disaster for obvious reasons.  I’ll bet I could find a few HazMat members who were asked by another agency to let them use their suits without the training to go down range.  It is hopefully rare but can be a possibility where you are put in this position of being asked to ‘field promote’ non-hazmat personnel.   Know your regional regulations!  Many regional teams do have members from local law enforcement (often used for Meth Lab calls) which could be helpful since they are HazMat trained Law Enforcement.  Making entry for HazMat and entry for suspect search are very different operations and acute lead poisoning is something most HazMaters should stay clear of.  After interviews with several HazMat cops in CA many feel if there is a suspect inside the incident (or suspicion of) the incident is a SWAT entry.

In most states to work as a Pesticide applicator requires a minimum of 80 hours of training not including on the job experience.  The Vikane label requires the use of a NIOSH or MSHA approved possitive pressure self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) or comdination air-supplied/SCBA respirator whenever the air concentration of sulfuryl flouride exceeds 5ppm (Dow AgroSciences LLC, 2000)  Typically a fumigation applicator works so that there is little need for entry in to the IDLH where the fumigant is supplied from the exterior.


LAPD HazMat Robot - HMN

LAPD HazMat Robot – HMN

Air monitoring – if your team is not able to make entry would you give the Police quick training on the meters, or have a plan to monitor remotely? Do your police agencies (some HazMat crews roll with several different jurisdictions) carry air monitoring equipment? Is there a robot available? Could you put monitors on the robot and view remotely? How would you specifically measure Sulfuryl Fluoride?

Can we detect the odorless and colorless Sulfuryl Fluoride?

Can we detect Sulfuryl Fluoride?  There are portable monitors on the market almost exclusively used by the fumigation companies which can detect Sulfuryl Fluoride (see pic).   There are colormetric tubes which are designed to detect Sulfuryl fluoride but have the usual limitations of all tubes.  Check to see what you carry and if your local fumigator has a detector.  Many regional HazMat teams may find they do not have the Sulfuryl Fluoride tubes, check your inventory.

Portable Vikane detector - Source Vendor

Portable Vikane detector – source Vendor

Colormetric tubes - source Vendor

Colormetric tubes – source Vendor

Without a the correct equipment our air monitoring is most likely limited to Oxygen, Carbon Monoxide, LEL, and Hydrogen Sulfide.  Even in higher concentrations the fumigant may not even lower the Oxygen on your gas detection monitor.  By design the Chloropicrin will cause irritation at levels lower than the threshold limit value (TLV) of Sulfuryl Fluoride.

Does it like to stick around?

Luckily, due to the physical properties of Sulfuryl Fluoride, the fumigant does not accumulate inside the structure following proper fumigation and ventilation.  The concentration is what ‘drives’ the fumigant in to the wood to go after the termites.  According to a study by University of California Riverside the fumigant will not adversely affect water or soil when used properly as Sulfuryl Fluoride has a very low solubility in water.  Water acts as a barrier to minimize the movement and confine the fumigant to the structure.  When aeration (ventilation) is initiated, the fumigant concentration decreases rapidly.   Vikane is 3.5 times heavier than air but with a boiling point of -67.36 F it likes to be a gas and will readily disperse in to the atmosphere when ventilated.  Vikane is non-combustible and non-corrosive and I could not find anything indicating hits for CO on a gas detection monitor (I had heard this rumor at one point although could have been a nearby generator or other internal combustion engine).

Two fatalities occurred in a couple who lived in an 80,000 cubic foot house fumigated with 250 pounds of sulfuryl fluoride. Following fumigation, no one should enter the area without a self-contained breathing apparatus until measured air concentrations are below 5 ppm. - National Library of Medicine


Decontamination  – After review of the physical properties, what if your team was called for a fumigation applicator who is having a heart attack?  The Medics on scene are concerned the patient is contaminated.  Without even knowing if the patient was working inside or outside of the tent, and the signs and symptoms all indicated he was having a heart attack,  would you need to delay transport for any decon?

Fire under the tent  - I was thinking of some worst case scenarios such as arriving to a structure fire which was under fumigation.  From the Technical reference we know Vikane is not flammable.  Are there special considerations for fire attack?

This information is aimed to shake some cobwebs and use current events to assist in training.  Please do the research and follow your local protocol.  If you have an event to discuss or want to vent I would love to hear from you.

About The Author

Phil Ambrose first worked as a HazMat technician pouring radioactive monkey urine into drums for decay. Phil is currently a Fire Captain/Hazardous Materials Specialist/Paramedic for a busy metropolitan fire department in Southern California and founder of HazSim.com. Phil holds a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering from Loyola Marymount University and trains first responders across the country using his patented Hazardous Materials Simulation Meter.



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