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Photo by Randy McEoin on Flickr.

Insects? Why are we talking about insects?

Pests and insects are a well-known topic in conservation. I am sure you will know from personal experience that there are certain insects which can wreak havoc at home - in the wooden furniture, our clothes, our books, our kitchens.

Has it ever happened to you that some ingrate moth has left a hole in that one shirt you had at the back of the closet saved up for special events and which is the only shirt that goes with the rest of the special outfit with the special shoes and the special bag that you save for special events when Zoom is not an option and you just have to show up? Maybe that’s just me.

What about the gross little weevils that show up in your rice? You know how they say that the only thing worse than a worm in your food is half a worm in your food.

The point I’m trying to make is that insects will not just eat things in your home, but also in museum collections, galleries and archives.

A friend told me once that something ate seven books in her library. I myself had to throw out a bamboo steamer because of a termite infestation. It’s my main excuse for discarding the steamed vegetable diet I intended to pursue.

The thing is, in my opinion, these insects eat away my happiness - and we can’t just go fumigating all our spaces once a month because we don’t also want to die from excess toxic chemicals. Moreover, collections don’t like fumigations either and sometimes discolour or increase deterioration rates after contact with fumigants. Let’s not even mention that some fumigants cause damage to local fauna (like bees) and that, just like with antibiotics if you over-fumigate and you don’t manage to kill 100% of the bugs, they will come back stronger and more resistant.

Warnings about the fumigant ghosts of the past

There are some important warnings to be made.

Remember that many objects have been treated in the remote and not-so-remote past with toxic fumigants and biocides.

Bad impression of a Picasso cubist portrait
Yes, I’m Johnny. How could you tell my mum used to fumigate in the museum?

Remember that although many chemicals and fumigants today are designed to be non-harmful to humans, this was not always the case. Barely 30-40 years ago, we used very toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic things. (Teratogenic means that if you are pregnant, your child might come out like a cubist Picasso portrait - with 6 arms, their mouth inside a half-eye, their ear on top of their nose and a hairy tail on one of their 3 feet. Do be careful.)

Be especially mindful of organic objects that have been in your collection or home for a long time. You just don’t know what they might have had added to them.

Be extremely careful with taxidermy items. Most, if not all, will have remnants of arsenic and mercury. Remember that many of these horrible susbstances can be absorbed through the skin and will build up in your body.

If you are around objects like wood, textiles and dried botanical specimens, many of them might have been mandatorily fumigated in proper Ford-style production line mode. This is just how things used to be protected from insects in the past.​

Beware of “white powders” on materials. Not everything that looks like salt is just table salt! (Sometimes it is, but do you want to find out the bad way?)

Don’t go poking your nose on objects like a hound. If you feel you sense a particular fumigant-y smell (It’s hard to describe. You come to recognise it with experience.), put on an organic vapour mask. Avoid being in closed rooms with such objects. Make sure you are in a well-ventilated space.

Be careful because your sense of smell might get flooded and stop recognising a smell. Your head, however, will know and will start hurting if the vapours in the area are causing you harm.

Even naphthalene (main ingredient in traditional moth balls) which were so common in our grandparents closets and wardrobes now seems to be a proven carcinogenic with some governments setting occupational hazard exposure limits to it. See this entry for naphthalene poisoning. I warn you. It’s not pretty.

If you still know people who “smell like mothballs,” you might be doing them a kindness if you let them know they’re a walking cancer dispenser. Be nice about it, though.

Person with full Personal Protection Equipment
This might be overkill, but not always! Photo by CDC on Unsplash.

Most of the time, there will be no documentation on past treatments with toxic substances, so it’s best to be on the safe side and put on your PPE.

Remember that just because “I’ve never used PPE for this and nothing happened” doesn’t mean nothing happened. Internal body damage by chemicals is cumulative. You may not feel anything is going on now, but if you keep doing it, maybe that cancer you get 10 years from now is being born through your actions today.

BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY

If you would like to know more about insects and pest damage for collections, you can follow me on Twitter where I’ll be posting more content on how to protect your objects at home.