[View Point] A Long and Winding Road

Columns - View Point

February 26, 2015

It’s often been said that life is a journey, not a destination. I think most of us probably try to lead our personal lives that way.

In the world of trade magazines, that’s rarely the case. Our goal is to publish a magazine and website with concrete answers to help you run your business. For example, say we ask a reporter to write “five tips for fly control in restaurants.” He or she talks to a few experts, compiles their thoughts and writes the article. Sure, that story may morph from “five tips” to “seven tips” but the article’s heart and soul does not change. And in my 17-year tenure at PCT, I can’t recall assigning an article where we didn’t know the ending. But this month is different.

This month, we assigned a story that we had no idea how it would turn out.

On their websites and collateral materials, many pest management firms include a number that has been quoted for years — that termites cause $5 billion in damage annually. But where did that number come from? It’s an intriguing question. So we asked our beloved contributing writer, Anne Nagro, to investigate. Little did she know what she was taking on. She spent hours with researchers and university professors, PMPs and many others on her journey to find the genesis of this oft-quoted number. And while it was not her goal to determine if $5 billion was an accurate number, people inevitably commented on it. Along her journey she found there are estimates far higher than $5 billion, and she found folks who think the $5 billion number is too high.

But like most statistics in this vein, this number will always be debated. Here are some of the questions we struggled with and asked along the way — not all of them have an answer:

  • How do you measure termite damage if you can’t see it?
  • Termite baits and non-repellent termiticides were introduced during the past 20 years. Aren’t we better at controlling termites now? If so, shouldn’t that number have decreased?
  • How would an economist approach this question? Would he or she interview homeowners? PMPs? Chemical suppliers? Home remodelers? Or would an economist ask it a different way (e.g., how much damage do professional treatments prevent annually?)?

Working on this article brought another hotly debated statistic to mind: that there’s one rat for every person in New York City. So I checked in with the nation’s leading rodentologist, Bobby Corrigan. Like many of the leads (and dead-ends) Anne was given while writing the termite damage article, Bobby said no one really knows where that NYC rat estimate came from.

“One theory for the origin of the New York rats number is suspected to be tied to a NYC rat summit that occurred during the 1970s. During the summit, one city official stated that he ‘believed it was possible there could be as many rats in New York as there are people.’ Because the statement came from a city rat control official, it was picked up by the city’s media as an ‘official estimate.’ This statement was then matched to the U.S. census count, and voilá, there came to be about 7 to 8 million New York City rats,” Bobby told me.

“This statistic continues to be repeated as some type of ‘scientific formula’ for estimating how many rats exist in our cities and towns. Once such a statistic appears under the umbrella of anything within academic circles, it tends to become fact. How many rats exist in New York, or Cleveland or Los Angeles? No one knows for sure. And for all practical purposes, this statistic is impossible to determine with any accuracy,” Bobby said.

While Anne was able (mostly) to track down the origins of the industry’s damage statistics, today’s actual termite damage number is something no one can agree on. But again, our goal wasn’t to come up with a damage number. Our goal was to see if we could figure out how the number had become so ingrained in the industry’s minds (and websites).

A case can be made that any number reflects positively on the industry. If you believe the $5 billion number is accurate (or you think the damage number is higher) it shows consumers how much potential damage termites can cause, and why professional control is so important. If you believe the number is less than $5 billion, you can argue how much improved our termite control tools and training are — that our industry has lowered the damage number over the years.

Our staff believes trade magazines are supposed to generate conversation in the marketplace. As such, we’d like to keep the conversation going. We encourage your feedback and we look forward to publishing readers’ comments in upcoming issues — so please drop us a line. And although it’s a long and winding road, we hope you enjoy the journey this month.

The author is editor of PCT.