Molecular structure of Fipronil:
INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Dangerous chemicals are being found inside Indiana restaurants, nursing homes, hotels and health clinics. They may even be inside your home. The substances were put there purposely to control pests. But, I-Team 8 discovered the residue they leave behind could be harming your health.
I-Team 8 dug through stacks of documents to find out what those risks really are, and who’s responsible for them.
“A GAME CHANGER”
For exterminators like Dan Miles of Indianapolis, Fipronil has become lightning in a bottle.
The product, more well known by its brand name Termidor, is manufactured by German based BASF. Fipronil arrived on the market nearly a decade ago, and has since been adapted to a number of uses, including commercial and agricultural pesticides. It’s even used in very low doses in some pet flea treatments, including the brand name Frontline.
Used safely, as directed, Miles says Fipronil can be a game changer in the elimination of pests.
“This is an excellent product for termite control, and it also works very well on ants. When the insect crosses over it, they don’t even know they’ve come into contact with it. They take it back to wherever their nest is, and they spread it to more than just that one insect. That’s why it’s so effective,” Miles told I-Team 8.
The product works so well that it has to be diluted and combined with water when its sprayed as Termidor. It also comes with a long list of use restrictions backed by federal law.
POSSIBLE HUMAN CARCINOGEN
“You can see them right there on the label,” Miles said, reading the Termidor canister bearing the word “caution” in capital letters. “[This] must not be applied to indoor surfaces for the purposes of indoor pest control. Do not use indoors, except for applications into wall voids. It is a violation of federal law to use this in manner inconsistent with the label.”
There’s a good reason for the extra oversight.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists Fipronil as a “possible human carcinogen,” meaning it has the potential to cause cancer.
“The main thing is that … they haven’t done enough testing for indoor use. And, there are concerns with [exposure]. Especially if you allow children and pets back into a building and that surface is still wet or if they mixed it incorrectly, that material can be absorbed into their skin and that can become a big issue,” Miles said.
That’s why Termidor is only approved for outdoor use in areas far away from humans and animals. Using it indoors around children whose immune systems are still developing is of particular concern, the EPA noted.
“For a house or a commercial structure, you use it around a perimeter, where the ants would infiltrate into the building,” Miles said. “And, you keep people away.”
But, in early 2012, state regulators began getting tips from whistleblowers alleging that wasn’t what was happening in the field.
“They’re cutting the corner and [using Fipronil indoors],” Miles said. “They’re getting much better results and a competitive advantage. But, they’re also doing something that’s totally illegal.”
Last summer, investigators from the Office of the Indiana State Chemist (OISC), based at Purdue University, opened their first Fipronil case file, and began gathering samples across the state.
Swabs were taken inside restaurant kitchens and retirement homes, churches and health clinics, hotels and even grocery stores.
From Mooresville to Muncie, Bloomington, Greenwood, Indianapolis and dozens of other Central Indiana cities, nearly every test so far has come back positive for Fipronil.
For OISC’s pesticide division, it was a major red flag.
“We’ve invested quite a few resources in trying to determine if this kind of use is occurring, and we’ve determined that it has,” OISC Pesticide Administrator David Scott told I-Team 8.
OISC and the EPA are still gathering evidence on the effects of long term exposure to Fipronil, but Scott says both agencies are concerned by their findings so far.
“Even though we’ve not documented health effects, we have to operate under the assumption that if it’s not approved, then it’s without a doubt a bad thing if it’s used in that setting,” he said.
But, investigators found that Fipronil has been used in that setting an alarming number of times.
“The companies that we have found using it are using it on a number of locations — hundreds of locations over the course of the last two to three years,” Scott said.
TRACKING THE PROBLEM
I-Team 8 visited dozens of those locations to get to the bottom of what happened. Since none of the owners had sprayed the chemicals themselves, most were reluctant to speak about the issue. But many said off camera that they felt duped.
“We hired the pest company and assumed they were doing what they needed to do,” said a manager at Louie’s Restaurant at Stones Crossing in Greenwood.
“We had no idea what they were applying,” agreed an administrator at Summit Place West retirement home on the west side of Indianapolis. “It was supposed to be just our normal treatment.”
The same response was echoed at other restaurants, hotels, clinics and others who have recently hired pest control companies.
I-Team 8 uncovered another pattern too.
At least 72 of those cases were dispatched by one company: Ecolab.
Using data obtained by state investigation reports, I-Team 8 tracked down the Ecolab applicators accused of improperly applying Fipronil.
Again, none would agree to an on camera interview, but several said off camera that their pesticide problems are “in the past.”
“I’ve moved on. That’s over,” said Brian Corcoran, a former District Manager at Ecolab’s Indianapolis office.
“I’m trying to put the whole thing behind me,” agreed former Ecolab Assistant District Manager Brad Harvey. “That’s all I have to say.”
Documents obtained by I-Team 8 show pressure to get quick results following a pesticide application may have been put on company employees.
State case summaries show Corcoran admitted to telling employees to “do what is needed to do the job” and “do whatever it takes.” Corcoran also told investigators that EcoLab technicians “may have taken his direction out of context.”
“It’s probably very effective in controlling the pests,” said Scott, with OISC, when asked why applicators would have chosen to apply Fipronil indoors. “They’ve probably tried other products that are not giving them the control they had hoped for. They’re having to come back. So, they tried this product. And, it’s the hope that nobody is going to know that they applied it.”
Reached at its corporate office in St. Paul, Minn., a company spokesman said Ecolab was equally concerned with the state’s findings.
“Ecolab management was not aware of this situation prior to OISC’s involvement,” said Ecolab Global Communications Director Roman Blahoski in a statement to I-Team 8. “Ecolab took swift and appropriate action to correct the situation, including terminating all associates involved with the improper use of this insecticide and re-training associates on its proper use.”
Blahoski called Indiana’s cases “isolated incidents” that were not seen in other states where Ecolab operates.
The state fined Ecolab $18,000 for violations of Fipronil use. A settlement was recently reached requiring the company to pay $9,000 of that fine.
OTHER CASES EMERGING
I-Team 8 found Ecolab isn’t the only company now accused of illegally applying Fipronil indoors.
State investigators are now tracking at least three additional active cases.
“I can only say we have several locations still with [open cases] and others where we are just starting an investigation,” Scott said. “And, until we see what the scope of it may be, I’ll say it will remain a concern.”
Those cases include an investigation in Muncie, where OISC accused Bruce Gee of Affordable Pest Control with improperly applying Fipronil inside a church and several different homes.
When I-Team 8 tracked him down, he admitted to using the product to “cut corners.”
“That was the situation for me,” Gee said, lowering his head. “It is highly effective. Unfortunately, we just made the wrong choice. And, I really am sincerely sorry that we did do that.”
Gee said he’s “concerned” about that choice, but said he doesn’t believe his actions put anyone’s health in jeopardy.
“No, not at all,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t think it’s any sort of extreme situation.”
Shown the EPA’s findings on the chemical, Gee changed his stance.
“I’m not quite sure [what to make of that],” he said. “I could see the possibility of groups of people in a particular room that’s confined with no ventilation, where that could be a health hazard at that point.”
Gee says he hasn’t applied Fipronil indoors since the state began investigating him.
“I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to put myself in jeopardy, my company in jeopardy, or lives in jeopardy. I will abide by the law. And, the label is the law. So, that will be the situation from this moment on,” he told I-Team 8.
MORE CHARGES AHEAD
Scott worries that other applicators may not have the same conscience. That’s why he says more charges are likely still ahead.
“Our chemists and analysts are good enough that they can find [Fipronil] even if it’s been a year or so since it’s been used,” Scott, of OISC said. “And, we are out there looking.”
Investigators are also asking for the public’s help.
“If you hire [a pest control company], ask if they are licensed with the state, with our agency, to do that type of work. Ask, ‘Are you licensed in the appropriate categories?’ We always encourage folks to get 2-3 references to see what different companies, businesses and applicators are going to suggest. And, then, if you have a question, check the accuracy of what you’ve been told,” said Scott.
The state’s ultimate goal is to cut the risk of indoor Fipronil use to zero.
“Unfortunately, it seems this isn’t over yet,” Scott said. “Our hope is that anybody else that may have thought about using it will see the risks and avoid that in the future.”
Full statement from Ecolab:
“In 2012, the Office of Indiana State Chemist (OISC) determined that Ecolab Pest Elimination associates misused an insecticide inside some customer facilities. Ecolab fully cooperated with this investigation and agreed with the OISC’s findings.
During OISC interviews, a small number of Ecolab Pest Elimination associates admitted to using the insecticide inside some customer locations, which is against company policy. All Ecolab service associates are trained and licensed to apply pest elimination chemicals in an approved manner.
Brief contact with the insecticide can result in slight skin irritation. Signs and symptoms from a brief exposure generally improve and clear up without treatment.
Ecolab Pest Elimination management was not aware of this situation prior to the OISC’s involvement. Ecolab took swift and appropriate action to correct this situation, including terminating all associates involved with the improper use of this insecticide and re-training associates on its proper use.”
Ecolab Global Communications Director