Coles are selling, for indoor use, an insecticide that should not be used indoors. The active ingredient in their 2L “Surface Spray” – ESFENVALERATE – is termed “hazardous” as it is an extremely strong irritant. Its Safety Data Sheet says “for use only in well-ventilated areas.” Your kitchen, and your home in general, is not a well-ventilated area. The label says “Outdoor, Indoor, and Garden.” It should just say “Outdoor and Garden.” Whereas most generic brand insecticides have an analogue (or duplicate) in a premium brand, this one doesn’t. Someone in Coles hasn’t done sufficient due diligence, and the result is a product that could potentially be a health hazard to either asthmatics or elderly people.
Now please note that I didn’t say it was “dangerous” or “toxic.” These are very different terms. Here’s the explanation:
Dangerous refers to a chemical that is an acute hazard in either storage or transport. There are nine categories of Dangerous Goods (DGs), and toxic is one of these (Explosives, Compressed Gases, Flammable Liquids, Flammable Solids, Oxidisers, Toxins, Radioactive, Corrosives, Misc.) These are the coloured diamonds you sometimes see on trucks and storage facilities.
Hazardous refers to a chemical that is a hazard with repeated use.
Now, as you might imagine, Dangerous is worse than Hazardous, and most things that are Dangerous are also Hazardous. For example, if something is a Class 6 DG (toxic) it is also going to present a hazard when used.
The difference in the classification is that the parameters that place something in the Dangerous category are well-defined, whereas those that place it in the Hazardous category are not.
As an example, something with a flash point below 61 deg C is classified as Class 3 Flammable. If the flash point is above this, it isn’t. So petrol is flammable but diesel isn’t.
There are, however, many things that are Hazardous but not Dangerous, and overwhelmingly this is because they are an irritant. And this is entirely subjective, as irritability cannot be measured. In other words, if exposure to something makes you sneeze or cough, that is good enough to be classified as Hazardous. And there is often a fine line between them. For example, bicarb soda is not hazardous, but its more alkaline counterpart, soda ash, is (a major component of most laundry powders).
And the chemical in this surface spray is certainly hazardous.
When I bought it from Coles, I did what I always do and checked the active ingredient. Unusually, I didn’t recognise it. This was doubly puzzling, as it did not appear to be a synthetic pyrethroid, as synthetic pyrethroids usually have names ending in “thrin” – allethrin, permethrin and so on.
Synthetic pyrethroids now dominate the pesticide market, as unlike some of the other ones that have been sold previously, they tick three important boxes:
- they have very low human toxicity
- they are biodegradable
- they are deadly to insects.
So I took this stuff home and sprayed it on the walls in my kitchen – I have a bit of a cockroach problem atm.
As it was a water-based product, no particular fumes were generated as I sprayed it.
I then went and sat in my lounge room nearby to watch TV. Within minutes I was overtaken with a sneezing and coughing fit. I could feel an irritant in the back of my throat and I began sneezing incessantly. I went outside to get some fresh air and it took about 10 minutes to recover.
Then I came back inside, opened all the doors and windows, and had a closer look at the data for the Esfenvelarate.
The first thing I discovered was that it was indeed a synthetic pyrethroid – why they didn’t use the standard naming convention is a mystery to me.
The second thing I discovered, when I looked at its Safety Data Sheet, was that it wan “hazardous” and that it should “only be used in well-ventilated areas.”
And then i knew what had happened.
This is the only insecticide that Coles sell that doesn’t have an analogue in a premium brand (Mortein, Pea-Beu, Raid etc). This is normally the case, as Coles don’t have any manufacturing facilities, so every home-brand they sell is made under licence by someone else. In the case of fly sprays it has to be one of the premium brands, as they’re the only ones with the facilities to do so.
Consequently, many home-brands are just the premium brands repackaged. For example, I am convinced the Coles roach Bomb is actually Mortein, as the active ingredients are identical.
But the upshot of this is that the premium brand has done all the due diligence with what they can and cannot put in the products they sell, and so Coles just utilise this expertise.
But, in this case, they’ve short-circuited the process and come up with their own product. The problem is, of course, that whoever in Coles decided to sell this as a product to be used indoors, didn’t have sufficient expertise to interpret the safety data.
But in a way I’m not surprised by this.
Fly sprays were invented during WW2 by the German troops stationed in the desert (the Akrika Korps). Flies were a terrible problem in the desert war, and someone noticed that the flies appeared to be avoiding a certain plant – the Pyrethrum Daisy. So some bright spark picked some flowers, ground them up, dissolved them in kero, put them in a metal can, added a propellant and an actuator, and lo and behold, the first fly spray was born.
After the war, this really took off. Mortein came on the Australian market back in the 50s, and at last there was an easier way to kill flies than with a fly swat or sticky paper.
But there was a problem. People that used the Mortein noticed that they sneezed a lot when they sprayed it. And this is simply because the natural pyrethrin in these flowers wasn’t just an insecticide, it was an irritant.
So the organic chemists got to work. They took the pyrethrin molecule and modified it, so it still killed insects, but didn’t make you sneeze, and these are the molecules in the Mortein that you buy today.
But this stuff – Esfenvelerate – is clearly NOT designed for indoor use. The people that developed it obviously did so as an outdoor product, so there was no need to modify its irritant properties, and this is why the SDS says “only use in well-ventilated areas.”
But some one from Coles didn’t understand this, didn’t look into it sufficiently, and so here we are.
So how hazardous is this stuff? Well, I’d surmise that based on my reaction to it, if this was used by either an elderly person or an asthmatic, it could be potentially very serious indeed.
So Coles need to change the label on this stuff, and remove the word “indoor” from the label, and I’d even suggest a warning in BOLD letters saying “only use in well-ventilated areas”