Double Trouble

Focus on Public Health - Focus on Public Health

Certainly flies and rodents can cause annoyance, fear and disgust for customers. But do you know all of the potentially dangerous health threats they can cause as well?

July 16, 2019

©Pam Walker | AdobEStock

House flies are annoying; rats are scary; and as home or business invaders, both pests are disgusting to customers. PCOs need to educate customers that these culprits also might be harmful to humans, making them sick or even causing death. Flies and rodents pose a serious threat to customers — do your technicians know how to talk to their customers about the public health concerns of these pests?

THE CULPRITS. Glen Ramsey, MS, B.C.E., and technical services manager for Rollins in Atlanta, described the types of fly and rodent “enemies” affecting homes and businesses during his presentation at PCT’s April Public Health Virtual Conference. Although not an all-inclusive list, he says, the most common fly pests Ramsey identified are either large flies that typically originate from outdoor environments, including house flies, blow flies, and cluster flies; or small flies, with typically indoor origins, including fruit, phorid or drain/moth flies.

Offering “the quick and dirty biology lesson on flies,” Ramsey explained that flies are small; are “overly annoying; they walk on grossness;” they spit, poop and cause disruption; and lastly, they reproduce, which causes nightmares for homeowners when one fly manages to find just the right conditions for breeding.

Regarding rodents, Ramsey identified Norway rats, roof rats and house mice as being the most common nationwide pests causing public health concerns. In terms of biology, Ramsey explained that the creatures are small and sneaky, and they “eat food, poop and reproduce.” Using their trained eyes, he says, PCOs will need to educate customers about rodent behaviors, habits, and food preferences in order to identify the correct species, control strategy and pest management plan to implement. “The homeowner is either providing access or providing information to you to help you make those interpretations or decisions on how to move forward,” says Ramsey.

THE DANGERS. Flies and rodents are a problem due to several factors, such as disease potential, public perception, fear or disgust, reputation damage, and regulatory concerns. Public perception, which is separate from fear or disgust, is an issue because people generally do not want to be in an environment where flies and rodents are present. As a result, brand or reputation damage — which is not exclusive to a commercial location — can occur as people avoid the affected site. “If I have family or friends over to my home and there is a rodent infestation or a fly problem, the next party may not be at my house,” he says.

Flies contaminate food because of the way they eat (releasing salivary fluid onto the surface from which they are feeding), and partially by carrying particles on their mouths, feet, abdomens or hairy bodies from whatever surface they were on previously. Plus, particles from pollens and dust land on flies and can be transferred by them. “This particular way of feeding and moving” provides the “potential to mechanically transfer different ‘grossness’ to other areas,” says Ramsey.

Green bottle flies, in particular, breed and feed on decaying organic matter. The decaying matter harbors bacteria and that matter will accumulate all over flies’ bodies. These are “things we do not want to ingest,” Ramsey says, because there is a potential for having bacteria grow in a person and illness to occur. When surfaces are contaminated from flies and the contamination is ingested, the threat exists for causing illnesses, such as pneumonia, upper respiratory diseases, pulmonary disease in infants, food poisoning, diarrhea or typhoid fever.

Similarly, materials rodents walk through, such as dust or body secretions, are collected on their bodies and transferred to other surfaces. Additional dangers are caused when fleas bite bacteria-carrying rodents and then pass the bacteria to humans. And, rodent fecal material is dangerous if “stirred up and breathed in,” Ramsey explains. These factors could cause hantavirus, lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM), plague, or tularemia. If cleaning up rodent excrement, he says, protect yourself and “wear a respirator or a mask to filter out the dust” to avoid breathing in the material.

Rodents potentially cause safety issues, as well, by creating holes where people could trip or twist ankles. And, “they can chew wires in homes and businesses and cause fires,” says Ramsey.

PERCEPTION IS REALITY. In addition to human health consequences, there are ramifications from public perception. Ramsey shared a story where a city in New Zealand was invaded by flies due to an issue in a nearby waste management plant. Not only was the town evacuated, but the story was shared around the world, equating to “exponential growth of people aware that this area had a problem,” he says.

When a fly is spotted on food in a restaurant, “what kind of perception does that give a customer” who is more than likely wondering where that fly has previously been, Ramsey questions. “The perception is that this place is dirty, and I don’t want to be here.” If rodents are spotted in restaurants or warehouses, this could lead to the bigger problem of brand damage.

On a larger scale, pest problems also might cause liability and regulatory issues when public health officials become involved. The public image of a business, like a major food manufacturer, could be affected by “fines, seizures, and recalls with damaged products” as well as the loss of business and resulting financial implications.

Fear or disgust of rodents “is an inherent fear that we are ingrained with from our childhood,” explains Ramsey, recalling images of old cartoons with people standing on chairs as rats run on the floor, or of elephants being terrified of mice. “We translated that into popular culture, and as a society we’ve learned to be fearful of these animals,” he says.

On the other hand, Ramsey explains that “not everybody hates [rodents]; there is some love.” Mickey Mouse represents Disney World, and a giant rat is the mascot of the popular restaurant and family fun location, Chuck E. Cheese. As a result, some people respect and are concerned about potential harm to rodents. In many of these cases, he explains, the customer may want you to relocate the animals. Pest management professionals need to be aware of this possibility and be able talk to customers about health risks and acceptable control measures.

NEXT STEPS. The presence of flies or rodents might be potential indicators or causes of other problems, multiplying into even further issues. Organic debris could be located underneath the visible issue, explains Ramsey. “If the original problem isn’t handled, and then secondary pests feed on the dead primary pests, [the problem] could keep going if not addressed,” he says.

As a result, PCOs need to ask questions — very specific open-ended questions — to obtain as much information as possible from the customers who are living with the problem on a daily basis. “Where are you seeing the flies? What time of day do you see the rodents running?” are examples of questions to ask your clients, Ramsey suggests.

Solutions are to clean the areas, close doors and seal windows. “Clean it up, seal it up and close it out” to “get rid of the source,” he says. PCOs need to help customers with exclusion work, and then communicate the next steps. “We’ve done this, now you need to do your part” by cleaning and keeping doors closed, he said.

In closing, Ramsey reminded PCOs to consider safety first. Read labels, use gloves and protective wear, and lock and secure bait stations. “Think about what [could be] inside,” he suggests. “Be careful when opening” bait stations because there might be something unwanted, such as an opossum, snake or black widow spider hiding inside.

The author is an Ohio-based freelancer.