[In the News] Warning: This study could scare customers

Features - News Coverage

Your pest management firm needs to develop a communications plan that helps employees deliver the facts to your customers.

April 26, 2011
Kristen Hampshire

With ongoing scientific studies that explore “correlations” and “associations” linking chemicals in products to negative health or environmental effects, a pest management professional’s fulltime job could be damage control.

Take the most recent story: Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published a new study examining the association between prenatal exposure to permethrin and piperonyl butoxide (PBO) and children’s mental development by age three. The authors concluded that mental development of children at age three may be adversely affected by prenatal exposure to PBO.

USA Today covered the story. HealthDay picked it up, and so did U.S. News & World Report. Newsday ran the article, too. In response, the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) issued a statement to members explaining the study and providing talking points for pest management professionals (PMP).

“Any time anyone publishes data that suggests an adverse health effect associated with chemicals a pest control operator (PCO) uses, we take that seriously,” said Bob Rosenberg, senior vice president, NPMA, Fairfax, Va. But this study — as with others — was “the most preliminary, speculative kind of thing,” Rosenberg added.

For one, the title of the story was misleading (Impact of Prenatal Exposure to Piperonyl Butoxide and Permethrin on 36-month Neurodevelopment). In fact, the authors concluded that there was no association between prenatal exposure to permethrin and neurodevelopmental effects. While an association was made between exposure to PBO and neurodevelopment, PBO is not used as the sole ingredients in any product and is used with multiple active ingredients, so it cannot be concluded PBO was the cause.

Supporting the preliminary nature of this study is Dr. Mary Fox, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was quoted in USA Today as saying, “Because the study is the first to link permethrin with brain damage, researchers need to conduct additional studies before concluding that the pesticide really harms the brain.”
But the study does put PBO on the radar of the public.

“It’s a product that has been on the market for years and generally considered low in toxicity to humans, and this is the first instance I am aware of, and the authors acknowledge as much in the article, that there has been a negative health consequence associated with this additive,” said Michael Merchant, professor and extension urban entomologist at Texas AgriLife Research & Extension Center, Dallas, Texas. Merchant authors the blog Insects in the City.

Taking a step back from this specific study, any research that links a chemical to a health or environmental risk can put PMPs in the spotlight — even if they do not use the chemical in question. It’s PBO and neurodevelopment today — yesterday, it was organophosphates and ADHD (another Pediatrics study). Who knows what chemical will be questioned in a study tomorrow. What PMPs must do is prepare a communications plan so they can confidently and accurately address questions from customers and the media.

Start with a plan.
Create a crisis communications plan that outlines how you will respond to media and customer inquiries before an incident arises. “That way, you don’t have to start from scratch,” said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs, NPMA. NPMA continuously monitors media for news affecting the pest control industry and provides guidance on a national, state and local basis. “Address the generalities ahead of time so when it’s necessary to respond to a circumstance, you at least have a framework from which to operate,” she said.

Also, decide who will speak on behalf of the company — will you ask technicians to route all inquiries to one spokesperson, or will you train all employees to properly address concerns. Either way, educate employees first before reaching out to customers or responding to media, Henriksen said.

Acknowledge the concern.
Take customers’ inquiries about chemicals in the news seriously. “You don’t want to come across as the bad guy, and people need to know you are concerned with the health issue also,” Merchant said.

Explain EPA.
Explain the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) role in regulating products used in the pest control industry. “It’s not easy to get a product registered through EPA,” Rosenberg said. Typically, more than 100 independent or separate studies about a chemical’s health and environmental impacts are conducted. This can cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. “There are close to 1,000 scientists in a building in Arlington, Va., whose job it is to evaluate risk and make risk management decisions — this is not a small program,” Rosenberg added.

Assure clients that all chemicals used by the pest management industry go through this rigorous testing and approval process. Merchant recommends this message: “We use products that are labeled for use by the EPA. At the current time, the EPA has indicated that these products are safe for their intended uses as long as a company follows those label requirements.”

“Every PCO I know is capable of providing a pest management service that can employ a wide range of options, from very conventional chemical applications to greener treatment strategies that may use no chemicals, or the chemicals used are very low in toxicity,” Rosenberg said.

Advocate for your team.
Explain to customers that you value employees’ health, and they are exposed to these chemicals daily. You’d never use a product that would compromise their well being — and anyway, the EPA would never allow that. “We want products that are safe for our employees, too — they are exposed to a lot more than the average customer,” Merchant says. Communicating this to customers helps emphasize your responsibility as an employer, a service provider and a community steward.

Word Power
It’s not just what you say—it’s how you say it.

Safe is a four-letter word. Specifically, safe is a “loaded word,” said Mike Merchant, professor and extension urban entomologist at Texas AgriLife Research & Extension Center, Dallas, Texas. A company should not ever say it uses “safe chemicals,” because the reality is that every chemical is toxic. “But there is a huge range in the level of toxicity of the products,” Merchant said, relating products PMPs use to aspirin. In safe doses as recommended by a doctor, a couple of aspirin taken according to instructions should pose no problem. But of course, a person will run into trouble if he or she swallows every pill in the bottle. The point: play it safe and avoid using that word in written or verbal communications about the products you use. There are too many opportunities for misinterpretation. Instead, say, “We use products that pose a minimal risk for anyone involved,” Merchant said. “That confirms that there could be some risk, but it’s not appreciable in the way we use the product.”

Some food for thought... Maybe you’ve heard this phrase or said it yourself: “It’s safer than salt.” (Please, don’t tell customers this.) There is no comparison between a pest control product and a food additive. Instead, draw more realistic comparisons. For example, if a client asks about the safety of a termiticide, such as fipronil, explain how the product is approved. “Fipronil is the same active ingredient used in Frontline, which is on-pet treatment to control ticks and fleas,” Merchant said. “Explain how the material you put in soil is the same material that is used directly on animals. That gives people a fairer comparison of the relative safety of that product.”

Put away the crystal ball. A customer asks you, “What do you think happened?” Avoid answering this question with speculative remarks. Instead, Henriksen suggests saying, “I can’t speak to the specifics of the situation, but here is what I do know: [insert factual information here].” —  K.H.

Hampshire is a freelance writer based in Bay Village, Ohio. She can be reached at khampshire@giemedia.com.