How do I clean up pesticides in the home?

How do I know whether or not cleanup is necessary?

There is no simple set of rules that can determine whether cleanup is necessary, or how much. A professional could help you identify your main concerns, and evaluate the level of contamination in your home. Pesticides are often found in homes at low levels, even without a history of misapplication.

Potential questions for the applicator:

  • Which product was used? What is the EPA registration number?
  • How exactly was the product diluted?
  • Which rooms were treated?
  • Were any wall voids treated?
  • How much material did you use in total?

How do I know which items and surfaces are contaminated?

Gather as much information as possible about where the pesticide was applied. For example, if it was applied to cracks and crevices, ask the applicator how high up the wall and how much of the floor they treated.

Should I try to get some laboratory testing done myself?

It is very difficult to tell how much pesticide residue is too much in order to protect the health of residents. It depends on the toxicity of the chemical(s) involved, the frequency of contact with contaminated surfaces, how likely the chemical is to volatilize into breathable air, the sensitivity and habits of the residents, among other factors. You might consider consulting with an industrial hygienist who could help you make an informed decision about whether clean up is necessary.

Before you pursue laboratory analysis of any kind, ask about whether the results can be interpreted to meet your needs. Some laboratories offer analytic services without interpretation, leaving people to guess about the meaning of test results.

For drinking water, there are published Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for many pesticides. That makes it easy to interpret pesticide detections in drinking water. Was the detected level above or below the MCL? For air samples, some risk-based values are available as well.2 For surface swipe samples, there are no such numbers available for easy comparison. For that reason, it may not be useful for the layperson to rely on laboratory testing to determine whether cleaning procedures are needed to protect human health.3

Which materials should be discarded, and which ones can be cleaned?

Porous materials can absorb liquids and potentially dust, taking them deep inside. Non-porous materials don’t allow liquids or dust to penetrate their surfaces, making them much easier to clean. Table 1 includes common items, identifying them as porous, semi-porous, or non-porous. It makes a big difference in determining how to clean, or whether to discard the item(s).

Table 1. Porosity of common household materials4,5,6,7
Porous Semi-porous Non-porous
Carpeting
Clothing
Bedding
Pillows
Mattresses
Upholstered furniture
Fabrics
Leather
Wall Insulation
Ceiling tile
Wood
Drywall
Tile grout
Hardwood floor
Linoleum
Concrete
Some tiles
Some sealed countertops
Glass
Metal

It may not be possible to remove enough of the pesticide residue from porous and semi-porous items.4,6,8 For example, one study found that double mopping with detergent, followed by a rinse on a linoleum floor had no effect on the level of pesticide residue in a cotton swab test.8 Sometimes, porous and semi-porous items are discarded in the process of remediation.

To protect yourself and others, consider these tips:

  • Do not dry clean contaminated items.
  • If clothing was soaked with pesticide, it should be discarded.
  • Do not use a professional carpet cleaner without consulting a professional.
  • Do not use community laundry machines without consulting a professional. Lingering pesticide can put others at risk.
  • Avoid cleaning activities that involve heat, unless directed by an expert. When chemicals heat up, they are more likely to become airborne. A few pesticides may be converted to more toxic chemicals when heated. Some organophosphates are known to do that.9,10

While non-porous items are the easiest to clean, some residue might remain. If items are frequently handled by sensitive people like kids (think about toys and bottles) and the elderly (think about medical equipment, for example), there is potential for ongoing exposure. Depending on the situation, some items may need to be discarded.

Sealants can reduce the spread of some pesticides from contaminated surfaces.6,11 However, they may not be appropriate for all surfaces or scenarios. A professional could help you make an informed decision. If you use a sealant, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

It’s preferable to follow the pesticide manufacturer’s recommended strategy for cleaning up messes. They are the only ones who know which sticking agents were used in the product, and possibly, how to break them up best.

Where should discarded items and wash-water go?

If you hired a company, they should manage disposal. If not, call your local waste management agency/company. Ask whether or not there are regulations that apply to your situation. They will likely ask you about the pesticide(s) involved, and about the items you plan to discard. Potential questions include:

  1. Should contaminated mop-heads and vacuum bags be placed in the trash normally?
  2. Can you provide a dumpster for contaminated drywall, carpeting, etc.?

Call your local wastewater authority. Ask whether or not there are regulations that apply to your situation. Potential questions include:

  1. How should you handle contaminated mop water?
  2. Is it appropriate to launder lightly contaminated items?

What about bleach?

Bleach may react with some pesticide chemicals. Reactions can result in more toxic chemicals, unexpected vapors, or other problems.1,4,5 If you have identified the specific product involved, ask the product manufacturer whether bleach or detergent is recommended. Lacking the necessary information, avoid using bleach. Products that contain sodium hypochlorite are bleach products.

What about ventilation?

If the pesticide is a dust or leaves dust behind, try to minimize air movement. Turn off air-handling systems and close windows. Dry dust can be cleaned using wet methods to reduce its movement into the air. However, adding moisture can cause chemical reactions.1 Consult a professional before wetting pesticide dust.

If the pesticide is a liquid, ventilation will be helpful. As air moves through the structure to the outdoors, chemicals in the air will be carried out.

What about personal protective equipment, like gloves and goggles?

If the specific product can be identified, read the product label and the Safety Data Sheet (SDS), provided by the manufacturer. They will identify the kind of equipment needed to apply or handle the product. Those instructions are based on the manufacturer’s unique knowledge of the product. If the exact product cannot be identified, don’t guess, and don’t rely on a simple internet search. Dozens of products can share the same name, but they might have different ingredients and require different equipment (i.e., gloves, goggles, etc.) for handling.

If the pesticide was applied as a dust, consider using a mask designed for small particles, rather than vapor. Safety glasses that fit firmly against the skin will prevent dust from irritating the eyes. Booty covers may be helpful, especially when shoes have laces or fabrics capable of trapping dust.12,13

If the pesticide was applied as a liquid, consider using a mask designed for organic vapors and small particles.13 Protect the skin from contact with liquids used in the cleaning process. Avoid using gloves made of any porous material, such as leather or fabric.12

Barrier laminate gloves are highly resistant to chemicals in all eight EPA chemical resistance categories.12 However, even highly resistant materials will not provide unlimited protection. They need to replaced or cleaned at the end of each day and rinsed during breaks. Other materials with lower levels of chemical resistance need to be cleaned or replaced after every 10-60 minutes of contact.

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