I've marked Sept. 24 on my calendar. It's not the birthday of anyone I know — it's the day I realized that bed bugs are out there. I mean out there. Not just in the Mallis Handbook, not just at multi-day industry events and not just in my inbox. EVERYWHERE.
Over the weekend I was catching up on some reading and lo and behold, there, tucked in among the seasonal crafts and recipes in Family Fun magazine, were directions on how to dress your child up as a BED BUG for Halloween. "Create a cute bed bug costume so your child can creep and crawl around the neighborhood looking for treats," the article said. I thought, "Well, we've made it. Our industry is famous."
And while that's a humorous look at one of the pest management industry's most difficult-to-control pests, it's hardly the only bed bug mention in the media.
Just 24 hours earlier, NPMA responded to a report from a CDC publication detailing a seven-year study that examined more than 100 cases of acute illness associated with insecticides used to control bed bugs. NPMA reported that of the 111 cases examined, 99 percent were the result of "residents who took matters into their hands and employed DIY measures, applications performed by uncertified/unsupervised individuals or...no indication of application certification was provided. Though the study looked at seven years of data in seven states, only two cases involved the application of professional products by certified pesticide applicators."
NPMA quickly and expertly issued a statement in regards to the CDC's Sept. 23, 2011, "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report" (MMWR). It read, in part, "As one of the most difficult pests to control, eradicating bed bugs requires a partnership between a homeowner/dweller and a qualified and licensed pest professional who will effectively inspect and treat an infestation...In addition to treating the infestation, qualified, licensed pest professionals can provide homeowner/resident education on critical steps to maintaining a safe, healthy, pest-free environment."
No other pest has ever generated as much publicity as bed bugs. While from the industry's perspective any bed bug awareness is a good thing, the most important role the media provides is that it promotes pest management professionals' value as protectors of public health.
Protecting public health is a role I know PMPs take seriously — and they should. They want their staff and customers to be safe and they want to eliminate bed bugs from their clients' homes and businesses. And since they're in the pest control business, they also want to generate revenue from a service the public needs. If all four of those objectives can be met, then PMPs should be proud of a job well done.
The MMWR article generated lots of press, including hundreds of articles in, among others, USA Today, WebMD, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. The Times article focused on an infestation in the home of Lilah Gray, a 65-year-old North Carolina woman whose double-wide trailer home was crawling with bed bugs. Her husband "saturated" their residence with insecticide, including the release of 18 insecticide foggers indoors over three days. Gray, who suffered from a variety of ailments, also applied bed bug and flea insecticides directly to her skin and hair. She was found unresponsive two days after a second wave of chemical applications and never woke up. She remained on a ventilator for nine days until she died.
How do you respond when a customer asks you about such a news report? The obvious answer is that our industry's professional and licensed applications and this homeowner's DIY application are not alike. Refer to NPMA's talking points about this article and how to respond (www.npmapestworld.org/publicpolicy/issues.cfm). Additionally, check out Greg Baumann's column this month "Speaking About Bed Bugs with a Single Voice" (page 142). "Our industry must speak with a single factual voice about this pest so that we don't have conflicting information," Baumann writes. I also recommend you read PCT's April 2011 article, "Warning: This Study Could Scare Customers" (page 26). That article provides tips for your pest management firm on how to develop a communications plan that helps employees deliver facts to your customers.
Our industry is a professional one. We take pride in the fact that we control pests and prevent disease every day. And with a topic as popular — and for some consumers, as frightening — as bed bugs, there's no end in sight to the number of opportunities you will have to respond. Make sure you know how to answer the tough questions. Because for some homeowners, these pests are far more than a child's Halloween fright.
The author is editor of PCT magazine.