[Annual Cockroach Control Issue] Cockroach Allergens & PMP Liability

Features - Annual Cockroach Control Issue

here's a look at an emerging issue that could impact your company where it hurts most (your wallet!) if you're not careful.


In the past several years, PMPs have heard a lot about Bla G1 and Bla G2 cockroach allergens. But most may not realize the impact these allergens have on the pest management industry. Most states define an apartment as being uninhabitable if German cockroaches or bed bugs are found to be infesting the unit. The number of habitability lawsuits have nearly doubled every year for the past five years at Entomology Services, the lead author’s forensic entomology firm. Attorneys not only do battle over the presence or absence of vermin and who is responsible, but as of late, many lawsuits discuss the amount of German cockroach allergen present in the apartment.

Why does any of this matter to the PMP? The dollar value of a typical lawsuit can grow exponentially when medical conditions that could affect children are linked to the presence of an infestation. That infestation is the responsibility of the owner and his/her PMP and lawsuits can result in settlements in hundreds of thousands of dollars. A case in Sacramento, Calif., settled for $10,000,000. Insurance companies are now subrogating their losses to the PMP, whom they consider negligent in the mitigation of the German cockroach infestation.

The effect of German cockroach allergens and their relationship to asthma-related health problems in inner-city children was published in 1997 in the New England Journal of Medicine. In that study the authors linked high levels of cockroach allergens to the frequent allergies and asthma that was experienced by inner-city children (C. Wang et al, 2007), even though now we know it takes very little cockroach allergen to affect individuals who are predisposed to cockroach allergen sensitization.

Throughout the past 30 years the number of asthma cases in children has increased dramatically, especially those children in poorer neighborhoods where the frequency of German cockroaches are significant.

Our Study.
Bla G1 allergen is generated by breeding populations of German cockroaches, by cockroach body parts left in voids and by cockroach fecal droppings in cracks and crevices. Studies show that the best way to reduce Bla G1 allergen is to reduce the German cockroach population (Changlu Wang and G.W. Bennett, 2009).

During 2011-12, Bla G1 samples were taken from various locations throughout Los Angeles County. All samples were collected by an environmental testing firm familiar with surveying for Bla G1 by vacuuming floor coverings. The samples measured about 0.1 gram each, were tested by an independent lab and certified. All samples were taken in multi-family dwellings that were involved in litigation. Allergen levels are divided into low (less than two units per gram), significant (between two and eight units per gram) and high (more than eight units per gram). German cockroach severity was divided into light (visual counts less than 49), moderate (visual counts between 50 and 100) and severe (visual counts more than 100). Insect monitors were placed in the subject unit about 72 hours prior to inspection and a flushing agent was used during the inspection.

As you’ll see in the table above, a location doesn’t have to have a severe cockroach infestation to have a high allergen level.

The owner of a multi-family structure with a chronic German cockroach problem can be held responsible for contributing to a condition that is legally perceived as having a medical effect on the tenants. The owner certainly can claim not to be an expert, although his legal obligations rarely end there. The pest management professional is the ultimate expert in the elimination of a German cockroach infestation but the ongoing presence of these pests in many multi-family structures demands that the PMP take another look at how he approaches this type of business.

A New Approach.
In a previous article in PCT magazine (see “Holistic Approach,” November 2011), we reviewed the need for PMPs to go beyond the spraying of apartments as was done 30 years ago. PMPs are using materials that make it impossible to deliver a pesticide to the specific areas that German cockroaches live. Does the spraying of a crack or crevice in a kitchen cabinet eliminate the reservoir of insects in the connecting wall void or the hollow backsplash on top of the lower cabinets? We all know the answer to this question, however, this is how a lot of pest control is still being performed.

As was discussed previously, most PMPs involved in habitability cases in the Los Angeles County area were using only synthetic pyrethroids to solve long-term German cockroach infestations. The use of a wet application eliminates the possibility of making the application into a myriad of potential harborage areas. Not surprisingly, these are the same areas that German cockroaches are consistently found during the inspections of multi-family dwellings. These areas include: all electronic components (stereos, televisions, telephones and all appliances), electrical receptacles, smoke alarms, voids below cabinetry and wall voids where electrical or plumbing enter the walls. This is just a short list of the dozens of areas that are noted during the inspections of more than 2,000 apartment units to date.

The authors understand that it is easier to blame the tenant for poor results from pest control efforts but if we are truly committed to IPM in structural pest control then we have to apply those principles to an apartment complex as earnestly as we do for a large USDA meat-packing plant. The principles are the same and the partnership between the pest management professional, owner and tenant should be one that works towards elimination of pests. Owners should be held responsible for reducing harborage and eliminating moisture conditions. The tenants should be trained to understand what their role is in the process of German cockroach elimination. The present approach to selling pest control to apartments is stacked against eliminating cockroaches. Can you imagine selling a USDA plant with outside service only and 10 percent of the interior space only treated on request? That’s exactly how we sell multi-family dwellings knowing that that approach will not solve any German cockroach problem.

What This Means.
Here’s where this situation will affect the PMP. Insurance companies are finally getting tired of settling cases for bed bugs and German cockroaches, most of which the PMP is not even aware of. In the past 18 months insurance companies have realized that those costs can be passed along to the PMP who is performing pest control below the standard of care, or in lawyer talk, “in a negligent manner.” They have decided to go after the PMP, who is directing pest control operations for the owner. You are on the hook if you put in place a control program that is below the standard of care.

IPM requires the participation of the pest management professional, the owner and the tenant to achieve a solution. The landlord — as well as the tenants — must be educated on the conditions conducive to infestations, and be aware of their potential to create health issues. Only by working together can they achieve a solution.

Herb Field is a forensic entomologist and president of president of Entomology Services, San Marcos, Calif. Dr. Eric Paysen is technical director of Lloyd Pest Control, San Diego, Calif. Dr. John Klotz is a retired researcher from the University of California, Riverside.