The Problem with Pests
Cockroaches, ticks, ants, mosquitoes, mice...certainly not images you conjure up when you picture "home, sweet, home". But such pests are attracting greater public attention because of the increasing health risks they pose to American adults and children.
"While not all insects, ticks or mites are harmful to humans, some carry life-threatening diseases," says Dr. Jerome Goddard, clinical assistant professor of preventive medicine, University of Mississippi Medical School. "We are seeing several new vector-borne (carried by insects) diseases emerge, such as Lyme disease, and consumers need to learn how to protect themselves and remove such risks from their environment."
Authorities say health-related pest problems are on the rise for many reasons. Dr. Phil Koehler, entomology professor, University of Florida, says many of the pests American consumers contend with today are species or exposures imported from other countries, largely from air travel. Goddard agrees, "Dengue fever, for example, can be traced back to American tourists bitten by mosquitoes during Caribbean vacations."
Suburbanization and the growing human population contribute to the rise in diseases as well. Goddard says the increase in Lyme disease can be linked to building homes in wooded areas and even tick bites in parks near cities. Parks are a source of tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme and others.
Pest problems are not limited to diseases transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks. Consumers must also contend with insects that bite or sting, including ants, bees, poisonous spiders, flies, hornets and wasps. Other insects, such as fleas, lice, mites, cockroaches and beetles, can aggravate skin disorders or allergies and infest food supplies. Dr. Bobby Corrigan, RMC Pest Management Consulting, Richmond, Ind., says rodents not only are linked to disease transmission, food contamination but also to electrical problems in city buildings, where they can gnaw through insulation for electrical wires, affecting critical computers and other equipment.
"The good news is that we can put a stop to some of these problems," says Goddard. "Pest control is a matter of education, personal protection, sanitation and elimination."
Corrigan agrees. He suggests controlling rodents using an integrated pest management (IPM) plan that includes sanitation, pest-proofing buildings, trapping programs and rodenticides. "IPM is critical if you have a severe problem with these small mammals, even more than with insects," he says.
While a fly swatter may offer short-term solutions for insect control, many entomologists encourage consumers to focus on broader, more effective answers. Goddard recommends consumers first avoid exposure when possible and use insect repellents and an appropriate pest management program that includes pesticides.
"Pesticides are important public health tools in destroying health threats. I've heard them referred to as 'environmental medicines,' and I agree with that concept," says Goddard. "When pesticides are used judiciously and according to their label, they are extremely safe tools for pest control."
Koehler suggests consumers first learn what they can about the pests they are trying to control by searching the Internet, contacting Extension specialists or pest control professionals. Koehler then recommends consumers target pest control and treat for pests only when a legitimate pest problem exists.
Judicious use of pesticides will not only help protect consumers from disease-carrying insects and rodents, it will help preserve the effectiveness of the products in use. In addition, Goddard says researchers must continue to have the opportunity to develop and register new pesticides that will help control pests resistant to products already on the market.
"The benefits of judicious use of pesticides far outweigh any risks and help slow down the threat to public health," he says. "Consumers do not need to fear being around pesticides when products are being used according to the label."
Pest Problems Are Not Child's Play
While anyone can have a close encounter of the unpleasant kind with insects or other pests, the natural curiosity of children gets them into trouble most often. Whether children are crawling through grass or climbing in cabinets, cockroaches, fleas, ticks or rodents may end up an unwitting part of the exploration.
"Children, just by nature of their size, are very vulnerable to stinging and biting," says Dr. Jerome Goddard, clinical assistant professor of preventive medicine, University of Mississippi Medical School. "Children are also most vulnerable to vector-borne diseases (carried by insects) because their immune systems are still developing. Since they have not been exposed to much, reactions can be more severe than with adults."
Health risks to children in the inner cities where dust mites and cockroaches often thrive have recently been recognized. "We are seeing a higher rate of asthma among inner city children because of allergies triggered by cockroaches and house dust mites," says Goddard.
Dr. Phil Koehler, entomology professor, University of Florida, has found the highest incidence of allergy problems is associated with cockroaches. Because of that finding, Florida state officials are seeking ways to improve indoor air quality.
"Children with allergies in inner city settings have three times the hospitalization rate as other children," he says. "If they're hospitalized or sick, they're not in school."
Other insect-related diseases and illness are increasing as well. Goddard reports a rise in the number of tick and mosquito-borne diseases, and concerns about head lice are reaching epidemic proportions in some areas.
"Children are most susceptible to head lice merely because of a child's playful behavior and personal contact," says Koehler. "The reason we are seeing lice epidemics is because the lice have gradually become resistant to over-the-counter treatments."
Koehler notes the lack of any new product chemistries in the last 15-20 years has allowed lice to become resistant to the one pesticide that is most often used to treat head lice. "This is a good example of why we need a good registration process to bring new products to market and then use them judiciously," he says.
Likewise, a sound pesticide registration system means new products to curb insect-related health problems must be proven safe before they are made available to the public. "Consumers need to know that someone can't just mix up chemicals and sell them as pesticides," says Goddard. "Products go through a rigorous process before they are approved for use."
While confining children's curiosity may be a sure-fire solution to preventing pest-related health problems, experts say the best solution is to control known and existing pests. "As long as consumers follow label directions, the benefits of judicious pesticide use far outweigh any risks," says Goddard.
What's Behind a Pesticide Label?
"Just as antibiotics protect humans from undesirable bacteria and germs, pesticides keep dangerous and damaging pests in check," according to Allen James, executive director of RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment)Ò . And, the similarity doesn't end there, he adds. "Pesticide products, that rid homes, schools, parks and workplaces of unwanted insects, plant diseases and weeds, are as extensively tested for health, safety and consumer benefits as are antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals."
Many years and dollars are invested in pest product development. The pesticide label, with its consumer instructions, is the proof that all products can be used effectively and safely. Every pesticide must successfully complete as many as 120 government-mandated tests before the Environmental Protection Agency considers label approval and product registration. Many of these tests are specific for human health, safety and environmental quality.
The entire development and testing process takes eight to 10 years at a manufacturer's cost of $35 million to $50 million or more per product. Yet, on average, James says, only one in 20,000 potential products ever makes it to the marketplace.
"It's a complex, demanding process based on sound science principles with consumer safety uppermost," James points out. "The system of scientific and regulatory checks and balances assures that strict safeguards are built into every pesticide, when used according to label instructions."
"And the process is becoming even more stringent, James says. The 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) sets a single health standard for all pesticides, agricultural and specialty, and takes into account any potential occurrence in food and drinking water. The act also provides additional protection for infants and children, and expedites registration of newer products.
Yet some "naysayers" continue to target pesticide products as a risk to consumers, James says, as he notes that "no pesticides are known to have caused harm to humans when applied according to those all-important label instructions." This is where the analogy to pharmaceuticals again can be made, he says. Any risk is in misuse of the products and failure to follow directions.
Dr. C. Everett Koop, former U.S. Surgeon General has said, "The risk of being killed by an automobile (one in 6,000) is much greater than any hypothetical risk of a pesticide."
Many other authorities have voiced the same confidence in pesticide use. Dr. Roberta Cook, University of California-Davis stresses that scientific surveys repeatedly show that pesticide residues in foods are 100 to 1,000 times lower than levels considered safe by the World Health Organization. Dr. Jerome Goddard, clinical assistant professor for preventative medicine, University of Mississippi Medical School notes: "The benefits of judicious use of pesticides far outweigh any risks and help slow down the threat [of disease-carrying vermin and pests] to public health. Consumers do not need to fear being around pesticides when products are used according to the label."
RISE, and the industry it represents, continue to work with government regulatory agencies to assure the data needed for consumer safety and label accuracy. "We have a commitment not only to provide consumers with effective protection from pest infestations, but also to assure consumers that the benefits of such products continue to far outweigh any potential risk."
Industry Association Promotes Safe, Responsible Product Use
The specialty pest management products industry has taken the lead on promoting safe and responsible use of pesticides by coordinating its efforts through RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment). The association is comprised of companies that produce and supply specialty chemicals for professional applications and for general consumer use.
"Our mission is to provide a strong, unified voice for the specialty pesticide industry," says Allen James, executive director, RISE, Washington, D.C. "We promote the safe and responsible use of all industry products. In addition, we communicate the value of industry products as pest management tools to enhance the quality of life and the environment."
Products that fall into the specialty pesticide category include pest management tools used in and around homes, businesses and public areas and on lawns, flowers and trees. Specialty pesticides are also used in commercial greenhouses and nurseries, on sport turf such as golf courses and for vegetation management along roadways, railroads and utility rights-of-way. Industries served by RISE include structural pest control, turf and ornamental, vegetation management, nursery and greenhouse, forestry, aquatics and public health.
RISE was created in 1991 to address the critical needs of the specialty pest management industry. RISE provides information on issues and research that affect the specialty pesticide industry, and monitors legislative and regulatory issues in Washington, D.C., and in the states.