Vizcaya treats bug-infested furniture with new method

Conservators build a tent to house the bed and other pieces of furniture for treatment at the Vizcaya.
Conservators build a tent to house the bed and other pieces of furniture for treatment at the Vizcaya. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Conservators at Vizcaya Museum & Gardens are treating bug-infested furniture with a treatment that sucks the moisture from termite habitats until they become brittle and die.

Unlike the poisonous gases used in traditional fumigation, the process, a type of anoxia, uses nitrogen to create an oxygen-free environment that kills termites and other insects infesting wood and fabrics.

Vizcaya, finished in the early 1920s as the winter home of industrialist James Deering, is using the treatment on furniture in the Lady Hamilton bedroom and will be expanding to the neighboring Belgioioso bedroom.

“Given our location — not only in South Florida but immediately next to the bay — it’s a high-humidity environment with a lot of wood,” said Lauren Hall, conservator of the museum, 3251 S. Miami Ave.

With the process, infested furniture is enclosed in a chamber, which looks like a silver plastic bubble that can vary in size depending on the amount of content. The oxygen is then sucked out of the chamber and replaced with nitrogen.

Over a roughly three-week period, the insects die not from lack of oxygen, but because the chamber creates an environment with humidity too low to sustain insect life.

“It’s not a matter of respiration,” Hall said. “It’s a matter of getting crunchy.”

The process is safe for nearby humans — as long as they stay out of the chamber.

And the treatment is safer for the furniture and the environment than traditional fumigation, said Bret Headley, a Philadelphia-based wood and artifacts conservator who Hall worked with to set up the chamber.

Poisonous gases can chemically react with components of the object and damage the original physical qualities. For example, Headley said the chemicals in Vikane — a gas used in many fumigation treatments — can change the color of textile dyes.

Nitrogen works because it is considered an inert gas, meaning that it won’t often react with other chemicals. It also makes up 78 percent of the air humans breathe.

“So it has less effect on the immediate environment,” Headley said.

Hall said she expects the treatment in both rooms to finish around the end of October. Visitors can still view the rooms during treatment, from behind a glass window.