The disciplines of pest control and public health are closely related, both with rich histories, fascinating characters and important contributions (Goddard 2012). However, many people still view pest control technicians as “bug killers” and have little or no appreciation for their contributions to public health. Here’s what you need to know to dispel this myth for your staff.
PUBLIC HEALTH BACKGROUND. Long before we understood human anatomy and the causes of disease, health and hygiene issues were usually handled by religious leaders, who might attempt to solve them using potions, concoctions, plants, chants or devices. Some thought diseases were caused by unbalanced fluids in the body.
During the Roman Empire days, great strides were made in providing clean water and handling of sewage. Long, majestic aqueducts brought fresh water from great distances. Filth and dead animals no longer dominated city streets, and swamps were drained.
Then, came the Dark (or Middle) Ages (approximately 476 A.D to the 14th century). During this time of social upheaval, there was a significant disintegration in science and sanitation, and diseases raged. For example, roughly one-third of the population died from plague, or the “Black Death.”
The Renaissance (roughly the 14th-17th centuries) brought about a rebirth in health. Scientists and others started to study the human body and there was renewed interest in what made people sick. The crowning achievement came with the publication of the germ theory of disease in the early 1880s. The battle against viruses, bacteria and other pathogens was on!
PEST CONTROL BACKGROUND. The origins of organized pest control can be found in the Middle Ages, with the focus being on rats. “Rat Catchers” appeared in cities and towns with some, such as the Pied Piper of Hamlin, achieving notoriety (probably for reasons good and bad!).
Around the 18th century, rat catchers became somewhat specialized in their techniques; traps became a bit more sophisticated, chemicals appeared on the scene and rat-sniffing dogs were employed.
Starting in the 1840s and through the 1900s, many European rat catchers emigrated to the U.S., where they set up pest control businesses. This began the pest control industry in the United States.
DEFINITIONS. Before we get to the meat of the story, it is useful to look at a few definitions. Take a minute and ask yourself “What is a pest?” What did you come up with? One definition I like is “a pest is a species or organism that interferes with human (and animal) health, activities or property, or is objectionable.”
“Pest control” simply can be defined as “the theory and practice of controlling pests,” although we all know there is much more to it! But what about public health? This may not be quite as obvious to the reader. In 1920, C.E.A. Winslow defined public health as “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society; organizations, public and private; communities and individuals.” (I added the italics to emphasize the three key pillars.)
Finally, what is “health”? According to the World Health Organization, health is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (italics added for emphasis). We now have a firm foundation to examine a few specifics of how pest control benefits public health.
PSYCHOLOGICAL BENEFITS. Sometimes I will ask one of my audiences, “How many of you provide pest control to your customers?” Of course, all hands go up (unless some folks are sleeping). I then build the argument that what they actually provide is peace of mind and quality of life. It may be a fine distinction, but I like it. Peace of mind and quality of life (that is what your customers are paying for) equals their mental well-being.
Customers also expect a professional job, from beginning to end, for the money they spend. When a sales professional or a technician shows up, that person is the face of the entire company so remember that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And don’t forget about consistent follow-up, after each service if possible. A simple phone call, email, text message or personal visit shows your customers that you care and want to solve their pest problems.
Remember that some types of pest infestations, such as head lice and bed bugs, may carry a social stigma factor. Impacted customers may feel embarrassed, ashamed or even disgraced. A little empathy and explanation of cause by the PMP can go a long way toward relieving anxieties.
To some customers, a few bugs may not be a big deal. Others may be entomophobic — they actually fear insects — and this is a real thing to them. Be sensitive if you encounter this situation but don’t confuse entomophobia with delusory parasitosis, which I will address later in this article.
ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS. We all have encountered customers who are a bit chemophobic. This fear of chemicals may be the result of a lack of good information. Offering a brief explanation of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) can be useful. Explain about thorough inspections, use of only EPA-approved products according to label, increased use of baits, exclusion, reduced-risk pesticides, etc. Granted, you will never fully convert some customers but they may rest just a bit easier.
PMPs minimize environmental impact at every opportunity. An easy and memorable way to express this is what I like to call the “Six Rights”: We use the right product at the right time in the right place with the right equipment at the right application for the right pest. Right on!
Pest control firms partner with formulators, distributors, producers, suppliers and regulators to ensure that products, equipment and methods are properly tested and evaluated, safe, environmentally friendly and effective. And remember that a violation of the label violates federal law.
ECONOMIC BENEFITS. We now know that a large percentage of asthma cases, particularly in children, are caused by pest infestations, especially cockroaches and dust mites. Effective pest control can help reduce the costs of doctor visits, medicines and lost work/school time.
Bites from wild animals are common. PMPs who specialize in wildlife control help reduce costs from emergency room/doctor visits, medicines and treatment regimens such as those given for rabies.
People aren’t the only ones who get sick. Effective pest control may help reduce the incidence, and hence the veterinary costs, of diseases such as dog heartworm, which is spread by a wide variety of mosquitoes.
Additionally, pest management services around agricultural accounts may result in increased milk and meat production, reduced annoyance from biting pests and reduced transmission of diseases, such as tularemia. The resulting decrease in veterinary costs coupled with the increased agricultural output can be extraordinary.
What about our food supply? We know that food production facilities can be shut down at a moment’s notice for any of several violations or findings. This may result in lost productivity, expensive repairs, replacement of equipment, modifications of protocols, and perhaps lost work time for employees. Proper pest management along with strict adherence to guidelines and regulations can prevent these types of episodes and save almost unlimited dollars across the country.
Unprotected food sources can become infested with a wide variety of stored product pests. In some cases, the infested product must be thrown away — there’s no choice. Again, regular inspections and proper treatments can mitigate these situations and save money for consumers, producers and distributors.
And, millions of dollars are spent each year combatting wood-destroying organisms, (plus the money that is paid out in damage claims). Again, effective pest management can be an important cost-cutting and cost-savings tool.
MEDICAL BENEFITS. We have already discussed the quality of life benefit, which can be psychological as well as medical.
Effective pest management helps reduce contamination of food sources by pathogens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year about one-sixth of Americans (48 million people) will suffer from food poisoning; 128,000 will be hospitalized; and 3,000 will die. This all results in significant economic impacts. We now know that arthropods, especially filth flies, can play a significant role in transporting pathogens from feces to food so there is no question that effective fly control helps reduce contamination of food and resulting illness.
About 30-100 people die annually from arthropod stings, the majority from bees and yellow jackets. Effective pest management, primarily the removal of nests, reduces this risk and allows clients to better enjoy the outdoors.
Finally, pest control is an essential component in the battle against vector-borne diseases (VBDs). Several VBDs, such as Lyme disease, are increasing while others (Zika virus, Bourbon virus, chikungunya, dengue, LaCrosse encephalitis) recently have invaded the United States or are emerging. And West Nile virus continues to impact about 2,000 Americans every year on average.
DELUSORY PARASITOSIS. I like to define delusory parasitosis (DP) as “the unsubstantiated belief that ‘bugs’ are infesting a person, a person’s belongings or a person’s environment.” Involvement with one of these cases can be time-consuming, frustrating and result in unwanted consequences for the PMP.
DP is the most commonly reported delusionary disorder in the United States, with about 250,000 cases per year. It is most common in the elderly. Onset often follows a major life event (a death, divorce, etc.) and those afflicted may engage in self-destructive behaviors. These folks are 100 percent certain that bugs are everywhere even though your inspection may turn up nothing. They are also very persistent and usually self-medicating with heavy doses of pesticides.
PMPs should handle cases of DP very delicately. First and foremost, confirm that a pest is actually present before ANY treatment is performed. Remember that DP is a medical issue, not a pest control issue so don’t make any promises and don’t make any diagnosis. This can get you into trouble.
There are several great reviews on DP available so if you are not familiar with this problem, I would urge you to read up on it. Eventually, almost everyone working in the pest control arena will encounter it.
FINAL THOUGHTS. I hope I’ve convinced you that pest control and public health are intricately related. I like to think of them as fraternal twins; on the outside, there may not be much similarity but on the inside, there is much commonality. Both have made great progress and undergone significant change, and both are grounded in science.
Today’s PMPs are not just baseboard sprayers; they are educators, communicators, consultants and detectives. PMPs are key contributors to the physical, mental, social and economic well-being of society.
Both pest control and public health are noble professions that are forever intertwined. Dollars are saved, lives are spared and quality of life is enhanced, every day. Those who toil in either field have much to be proud of.
The author is vice president of technical products and services at AP&G (Catchmaster).