Are Bug Bombs Safe To Use?

Updated: Jun. 23, 2023

The best for pest control or a needless health hazard? Before you buy a bug bomb, here's what to know about their safety and efficacy.

Bug bombs got their start protecting U.S. soldiers from insect-borne diseases in the Pacific during World War II. By the end of the war, more than 40 million had been deployed, fumigating everything from barracks to tanks.

A few years later, bug bombs made their way into our kitchens and garages. More than 50 million are still used every year in the U.S.

But for the last decade or two, their safety and efficacy have been called into question. New York State has even taken steps toward banning them altogether, citing safety, health and environmental justice issues. That’s because they disproportionately affect lower-income people living in large multi-unit dwellings.

Here’s what to know about the safety and effectiveness of bug bombs.

What Are Bug Bombs?

Bug bombs, aka aerosol foggers, bug foggers or total release foggers, are pre-packaged insecticides used for treating large areas like crawl spaces, kitchens and patios for pests. The insecticide, usually from the pyrethroid family, is placed into an aerosolized canister. When triggered, it’s released into the area.

“The big two pests we see this used most with are fleas and cockroaches,” says John Bell III, a board-certified entomologist with Florida Pest Control. “However, it has been used with flying pests such as flies.”

Do Bug Bombs Work?

It depends on who you ask, and what specifically you’re using them for.

Bug bombs only kill insects that come in direct contact with them. In a room full of fleas, they work great. But they won’t kill anything lurking in the walls, cracks or cupboards. This makes them ineffective in many situations, and one reason why they aren’t widely used or recommended by professional exterminators.

People also commonly use them for bed bugs, not always with positive results. Bedbugs and cockroaches can resist synthetic pyrethroids. One study showed bed bugs can survive the fog by hiding under a thin cloth layer.

“In reality they provide little to no control against cockroaches, and some control against fleas,” says Bell. “Typically, the cockroaches can retreat deep into the walls or furniture where the fogger materials fail to reach. Though you will get somewhat of a kill, many will survive and reproduce.”

How Long Does Bug Bomb Residue Last?

Product labels recommend staying out of the fogged area for two to four hours, then allowing another few hours to ventilate with the windows open. But the residues left behind can remain for more than a year.

There aren’t many studies about the dangers of these residues. But a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted even after ventilating the premises for the recommended time, some people still became ill. That suggested “ventilation might be inadequate or the recommended period might be insufficient to fully eliminate TRF [total release fogger] residuals before occupancy.”

To be safe, many experts recommend vacuuming carpets and washing every exposed area at least once, if not two or three times. Some also urge washing all bedding, couches and other soft materials.

What To Cover When Bug Bombing

Basically, everything. “Items that could come into contact should be covered and then also cleaned afterwards,” says Bell. That includes:

  • Furniture and surfaces;
  • Electronics, which can be harmed by the bomb’s corrosive chemicals and moisture;
  • Clothing, because chemicals can be absorbed by the skin.

“Covering things, such as fish tanks, will not ensure that the areas will be protected from the fogger materials,” says Bell. “It is not recommended that fish, or any other animals, stay inside a house that is being fogged.”

You also should store items like countertop appliances, cookware, food and toys safely away from anywhere the fog might reach.

Are Bug Bombs Safe?

It depends on your definition of safe.

Bug bombs are highly flammable and can blow up if used near a pilot light, which causes hundreds of fires a year. Exposure to the chemicals can cause throat irritation and difficulty breathing, especially for those with asthma. And as with all chemicals, it’s possible there are longer-term detrimental health effects not yet known.

However, bug bombs are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Most reported damages, injuries and illnesses come from people who don’t follow the manufacturer’s instructions, mainly by using too many bug bombs or setting them off in too small an area.

“Like anything, products that are misused can be dangerous,” says Bell. “I don’t recommend their use.”

If you use a bug bomb, it’s important to follow all instructions. The EPA also offers detailed information on the proper use of bug bombs.

What Is the Best Alternative to a Bug Bomb?

It depends on what bug species you’re trying to control. You’ll need to know your insects and their particular habits and vulnerabilities.

“For cockroaches, baits typically are the best treatment,” says Bell. “Baits are food laced with insect controls and use the cockroaches’ desire for food against them.

“As the cockroach searches out and finds this food, they will ingest the insecticide, killing the cockroach. Other cockroaches will also feed on the bait or dead carcasses, killing them as well.”

For fleas, Bell recommends treating the animal with flea control. Also treat its resting areas with an insect control that contains a growth regulator, to target immature forms as well as adults.

Regardless of what bugs you have, a fogger should not be your only line of defense. Prevention is often a more effective treatment than any chemicals. The EPA offers additional detailed information on pesticide safely and preventing and treating various pests.