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Fumigation 101
The Other Treatment Alternative
By Chaille Brindley

If the prospects of spending thousands on a heat treatment chamber do not interest you, then you might consider fumigation as an alternative for treating solid wood packaging. As countries start to adopt ISPM 15, pallet companies will be looking for ways to comply.

Fumigation has become an option that many pallet companies are considering. The new international standard developed by the IPPC provides for fumigation as a treatment option aside from heat treatment. While some countries may not recognize fumigation as an adequate treatment method, it is commonly believed that fumigation will generally be as accepted as heat treatment by most U.S. trading partners.

The National Wooden Pallet & Container Association (NWPCA) has stepped up to lead the oversight program for U.S. companies. The fumigation program is open to both NWPCA members and non-members alike. While the NWPCA has provided leadership to ensure the availability of fumigation as a treatment option, it has remained neutral when it comes to endorsing a particular treatment method. Timber Products Inspection (TPI), Packaging Research Laboratory (PRL) and Lee Inspection and Consulting Services are the three inspection services that are currently listed to certify companies for the official fumigation program.

There are two major misconceptions about fumigation. The first is that fumigation will not be allowed beyond 2005 due to the phase out of methyl bromide production. Methyl bromide is the only fumigant approved for treating pallets. While it is true that methyl bromide is being phased out due to environmental concerns, the chemical will be available for quarantine applications such as solid wood packaging. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released a final rule exempting quarantine and preshipment (QPS) use of methyl bromide from the phaseout regulation.

Jason Robison, export packaging manager for TPI, said that methyl bromide has a quarantine exemption for treating wood packaging and will be available for the foreseeable future. Currently, Great Lakes Chemical Corporation, West Lafayette , Ind. is the major producer of methyl bromide within the United States . Great Lakes have been asking their distributors and end-users to file the QPS paperwork so that supply of methyl bromide will not be disrupted.

The other major misconception is that it poses a danger to your staff. While methyl bromide can be lethal, it can only be applied by licensed fumigators. These fumigators specialize in the process and are licensed by state and local governments. Most pallet operations are not going to actually do the fumigation themselves; the fumigator will handle everything. David Dixon of PRL said, "Left to a professional, fumigation is a safe program."

There are a few basic rules to keep in mind if you decide to fumigate wood packaging.

  • Always have a licensed fumigator handle the treatment process. Whether you use an outside service or in-house staff, the fumigator must be trained and state certified. Unless a pallet company is going to do a lot of fumigation, most find it easier to just have an outside service come in and handle the treatment.
  • The label is the law. Dosage requirements and safety procedures must be followed at all times. Remember, methyl bromide is a lethal gas and a highly regulated pesticide.
  • Always properly ventilate gas before allowing anyone to be exposed to the area where fumigation took place. Donít let anybody into the atmosphere/area where fumigation has taken place until gas readings have been taken.
  • Ensure the treatment area is relatively air-tight. Sometimes a fumigator will even put a tarp around a truck or treatment chamber if the structure is not relatively air-tight.
  • Take gas readings at recommended intervals to ensure that the treatment area is air-tight and the gas is doing its job.
  • Take temperature readings before fumigating. ISPM 15 require that the temperature be 52įF or hotter in order to fumigate wood packaging. Cold temperatures render methyl bromide ineffective because the pests must have a high enough respiration rate for them to breath in the gas. The lower the temperature, the more gas and treatment time may be required to achieve the desired result.

Fumigation has become an attractive treatment option for some pallet companies due to "uncertainty" about the future. Burned by regulations and changing customer demands in the past, some pallet companies are reluctant to spend the money on a heat treatment system until they have sizeable orders in hand. Others see the coming international regulations as an opportunity to attract more business. They believe that companies with heat treatment systems will be in a better position to capitalize on the opportunity. Some view fumigation as at least a stop-gap measure. Others plan on using it as a long-term solution. Responses to the emergence of the phytosanitary issue have been varied depending primarily on customer needs and local market conditions.

Some are holding out on emerging technology that could be available in a couple of years. Researchers and industry suppliers are working on innovative treatment alternatives that could offer effective treatment at lower costs. Due to the testing and regulatory hurdles each new treatment method faces, donít expect any of these alternatives to be on the market for at least a couple of years.

"The biggest advantage of fumigation is that it can be done any where, even after a load is on a pallet," said Jim Sargent, director of technical support and regulatory compliance for Copesan Services, Inc. Copesan is a major supplier of fumigation services across North America.

When it comes to cost, fumigation tends to be a bit more expensive per treated load, but it does not have the considerable upfront expenditure associated with installing a heat treatment system. The cost for a fumigation service depends on a number of factors including distance from the nearest service center, volume, frequency and services requested. A company located far from a treatment center would have a higher cost because a fumigator may not be able to start the process and go do other things while waiting for the next monitoring point. Typically, it takes 16-24 hours depending on the temperature to treat a load.

Scheduling can impact the cost because a fumigator can better budget for a client with regular business than one that just wants to occasionally treat a load. If a customer wants to use a fumigatorís stamp, the cost for the service will be higher because the fumigation service must take the extra time required to apply its stamp. Jim said that fumigation costs can range anywhere from $175-$500 per load. Fumigation may be less expensive in places such as port cities where there tend to be more fumigators and greater competition for treatment business. According to David of PRL, fees for fumigation certification should be fairly similar to what is being charged for heat treatment.

When asked how effective fumigation is, Jim said that if guidelines are followed, fumigation will kill 100% of the pests in wood packaging.

The official IPPC program for fumigation in the United States is just waiting for APHIS' permission to use the IPPC logo. The NWPCA recently finalized the enforcement regulations and policy, and the IPPC logo may be available by the time this article reaches readers. For more information on the mark status, contact the NWPCA (703/519-6104) or your certification agency.

At this time, neither of the certification agencies said that they had approved a company as part of the official IPPC fumigation program. David said, "The program is really ready to go, but until countries start to require IPPC compliance, nobody is going to be using it."