"Waging War Against the Destructive Formosan Termite"

As Formosan termites chew their way through homes in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South, builders and legislators are left searching for solutions.  By Sharon O'Malley


There are two kinds of homes in New Orleans' historic French Quarter, says Allen Fugler, vice president of marketing for Lipca, an insurer of pest-control operator: "homes that have Formosan termites and those that will get them fairly soon".  

Indeed, the vicious Formosan subterranean termite, dubbed "super termite" by Louisiana State University's agriculture research and extension center, has infested nearly all of the houses and 30 percent of the trees in greater New Orleans, costing homeowners and the state and federal governments $300 million annually in repairs and prevention efforts.  Unlike ordinary termites, these pests can literally destroy a wood-framed structure in a few years.

The tab for controlling these ferocious bugs and repairing the property they damage in the 11 states where they've been found is close to $1 billion annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.  And the Federal government, which calls New Orleans "ground zero" in its effort to eradicate the persistent pests, is devoting $15 million to the project.

The situation in New Orleans is so urgent that Louisiana's agriculture commissioner recently considered forcing builders to use pesticide-treated lumber for everything from framing to sheathing to kitchen cabinets, a move he backed away from once cost-conscious contractors caught wind of the plan.

But the problem remains: The hardy critters, whose queen can live for 20 or more years and drop 2,000 eggs a day, are "literally eating people out of house and home here," says Fugler, a member of a state Formosan task force.  "It's not uncommon to build a home in south Louisiana and in a matter of a few short years have a termite infestation.


The Formosan subterranean termite, apparently shipped from China to ports in Louisiana, Texas, and South Carolina on military cargo vessels after World War II, is far more aggressive than native termites, which dine on dead trees and processed wood.  Formosans have a taste for everything cellulose: wood, paper, fruits, nuts, cork and live plants.  And they'll gnaw or squeeze their little bodies through virtually anything to get to their food, including electrical wires, plaster, plastic, and the tiniest cracks in concrete.  The only help they need is a bit of moisture, which a humid climate, a leaky faucet, or even an oft-watered flower pot on a porch stoop can provide.

Once inside, the hungry home wreckers can devour a dwelling's entire wood structure in tow years, says Julian R. Yates III of the University of Hawaii's College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.  Ron Gomez, a spokesman for the Louisiana Home Builders Association, says builders in Hawaii, where the termites have been a problem since 1913, tell him that a for-sale sign planted in front of a Formosan-infested home can be eaten in a day.  And Louisiana-Pacific, which recently introduced a line of borate-treated OSB that company officials claim repels and kills the pests, says a single Formosan can consume more than 1,000 pounds of wood a year, causing 71 times more damage than any other termite species.

The beastly bugs virtually hid from site in southern Louisiana until the late 1980's , when the U.S. Environment Protection Agency banned chlordane, an effective pesticide that's been linked to cancer.  Since then, pesticides used to treat new home foundations have proven less effective, by all accounts, easing the spread of Formosan colonies.


Responsibility for keeping the insect at bay has been left largely to homeowners, who, in turn, rely on exterminators to inspect their houses each year and plant baits at a cost of about $1,500 if they find the Formosan.  But Mandeville, LA builder Ron Knick says leaving treatment in the hands of homeowners has been ineffective.  He cites calls from three former clients whose homes were infested after they let their $85-a-year termite-control contracts lapse.  It cost each homeowner between $900 and $5,000 for repairs.

Knick's build/remodel firm, Knick Custom Homes, used L-P's borate-treated OSB and a bit of green wood - pine that was pressure-treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a preservative typically used on wood for outdoor decks - on his latest project.  The 2,650-square-foot home cost $4,000 more than usual for framing material, Knick says, adding he's pitching the $165,000 house as "termite proof".  L-P estimates that using is SmartGuard adds between 1.5 percent and 2 percent to the cost of building a house.

That's a price even Knick, who calls SmartGuard "a good selling feature", says is too steep for most New Orleans home buyers.  "I can't afford to spend another $4,000 on SmartGuard framing materials," says the builder.  He got the treated wood for his "termite-proof" house for the same price as kiln-dried material in a promotional deal with his lumber supplier.  "At this point in time, [home buyers] aren't that familiar with it.


That could change in short order if a campaign by the National Association of Home Builders and the Louisiana Home Builders Association is successful.  The groups are producing consumer brochures explaining how homeowners can keep their houses termite-free, and they plan to ask bankers, real estate agents, and builders to ply customers with them.  As part of the plan, potential home buyers also will receive information about other framing material options:  SmartGuard; CCA-treated lumber; steel; concrete forms; or untreated lumber.  that way, they can decide whether to build with - and pay for - a more expensive material, association officials say.

The plan was developed after the Louisiana legislature granted sweeping authority to state agriculture commissioner Bob Odom to mandate across-the-board changes in local building codes so builders would have to use treated wood in all new homes.  When the state home builders association objected, Odom initially agreed to limit the mandate to new Orleans, an edict the group rejected as well, says spokesman Gomez.  Finally, Odom, who is working with an advisory task force, put the plan on hold.  Gomez says the builders hope the commissioner with hold of long enough to give them time to lobby the legislature during its next session in spring 2001 to rescind Odom's code-altering power.

Like Knick, who says, "If I had a vote, I would vote against [mandatory use of treated lumber] because of the added expense," the association's leaders say such a rule would drive up home prices without curing the area's termite infestation.  "We can offer all options to builders and homeowners, but please don't do this mandate," says Gomez.

Builder Randy Noel, Louisiana's representative on the NAHB board and chairman of its Formosan task force, agrees.  He estimates building with treated lumber would likely cost 30 percent more because of the extra care contractors must take handling and disposing of the chemical-doused wood.  And carpenters and construction crews will face added health risks if constantly exposed to treated wood.

The Formosan, once established, has never been eradicated from any area.

Manufacturers, however, disagree.  "Absolutely not," argues Mel Pine, manager of communications for the American Wood Preservers Institute. Pine says several studies from Hawaii, where Formosan termites are rampant and builders have been required to use treated lumber or steel for years, show that construction workers who handle CCA-treated wood have no different health problems than those who work with untreated lumber.

"Anything that's going to cost more, they resist unless they think it's going to be a giant seller," says Metairie, LA builder Leonard Isacks, who has built three houses using borate-treated lumber from Osmose. Talk about health problems, he says, is a "smokescreen by builders in a tight, competitive market.  They don't want to do anything that doesn't show to the public and help sell a house.  They'd rather spend their money on pretty picture windows."

"The HBA really does a disservice to people," continues Isacks.  The well-off buyers of his custom-built homes, however, are in a better position than many buyers to absorb the extra cost, he says, which has averaged 2 percent.


The upside of the controversy, notes Gomez, is that builders are putting their heads together with pest controllers in an effort to find a compromise.  "For the first time, they have had meetings with pest-control operators so they can coordinate what they're doing," he says.  Typically, contractors cross paths with exterminators only when they treat soil before a foundation is laid.

Cole Schober, executive director of the Louisiana Pest Control Association in Baton Rouge, agrees that cooperation will engender a suitable stopgap solution while all parties wait for scientists to figure out how to kill off critters.  And he agrees that educating consumers is the smart next step.

"The homeowners' No. 1 need is to be cognizant of the conditions that likely will increase the possibility of a Formosan termite infestation," Schober says.  These include moisture from leaky faucets or plants that are too close to the home; soil above the slab; stacks of firewood leaning against the house; wooden landscaping ties that bring the bugs perilously close to the dwelling; and, of course, expired termite-control contracts.

Builders, likewise, need education on the matter, Schober notes.  He says construction crews should not walk on treated soil before pouring a foundation, as each footstep lifts some of the chemical from the ground and potentially leaves an untreated speck of dirt - enough to allow a crafty termite to survive.  In addition, he says, crews should not leave wooden stakes or form boards lying near the house or under the foundation.  And builders should leave 6 inches of the concrete foundation exposed to make it harder for termites to bore their way into the house from the soil.

Still, Schober admits, "Even if you do all of those things, you can't guarantee that you won't have a problem.  But if you do all of those things, the likelihood of getting Formosan termites is greatly reduced."

Yet he says the bugs may always be an issue.  "This problem was created in 50 years; it's not going to go away in five," he says.


In the meantime, the USDA and Louisiana State University, among others, are scurrying to create more potent chemicals for use in bait traps, which are planted along the perimeter of a home to keep the termites far from an untreated structure.  L-P is marketing its SmartGuard, along with Osmose's Advance Guard - borate-treated studs and joists to complement L-P's treated OSB - in Louisiana, Texas and Florida, and builders are watching for other manufacturers to offer some competition so prices will drop.

Meanwhile, one manufacturer, P.I.M. Development of Kaneohe, Hawaii, crafts removable baseboards so exterminators can easily look for the mud tunnels through which termites travel into a home.  And Hawaiian builders are experimenting with mesh wire that's installed as a barrier inside walls to catch termites before they can get into the wood frame.

"There is no silver bullet for control that we know of," says Schober.  And there may never be: The University of Florida's Department of Entomology says the Formosan termite, once established, has never been eradicated from any area.  BP

Sharon O'Malley is a College Park, Md.-based freelance writer.