In my coverage of the National Pest Management Association’s inaugural Pests & Public Health Summit (see p. 64 of the January 2023 issue), I briefly touched on how our industry impacts not only public health, but the health of individual households. To show just how vital our pest control services are, let’s expand on those themes, add some others and put them all in context.
Personal and household health
Services that protect individual or household health are those with which we are most familiar — so much so that we might not even think of them in the public health context. These are our regular pest control services. To put them in their proper context, however, we must reflect on why people hire us in the first place. Or perhaps more important, we have to look at why our industry exists. There is, of course, an esthetical component to our services; people don’t want to see cobwebs all over their homes, nor do they want to see ants crawling across their kitchen counters. Beyond that, however, we must consider the real impact of even the more innocuous pests.
Let’s stick with ants for a moment — not fire ants with a noticeable health impact, and not carpenter ants that can damage structures — just a common ant like the Argentine or little black ant. Typically, we consider these to be nuisance pests, but are they? What if they infest customers’ pantries? What if they make your food unusable? Now, one might say, “Well, they don’t spread organisms that can cause disease,” so what’s the actual harm?
Health, or the status of being in good health, is more than just the absence of disease. Many people live under financial conditions that make them vulnerable to unexpected expenses. If they lose food due to ants, will they be able to replace it? Will it mean that they, and their families, must do without? Will they have to choose between replacing the food or paying their utility bills? What sort of stress can be created by a simple ant infestation?
Now imagine it’s a German cockroach infestation, or bed bugs, or fleas. How much stress could infestations of those pests cause? The impact of pests on mental and financial health is potentially more significant than the effects of potential disease transmission or simple product loss, and the recovery can take a long time.
Defining public health
In pest control, it’s relatively easy to think about household health relating to things inside the home and potentially public health pests as ones found outside the house, with mosquitoes and ticks as prime examples. Superficially, that’s an understandable perspective. It is somewhat well-founded, and public health pests typically are those that can expose people and pets to pathogens from sources outside of their control. A deeper look, however, tells a different story.
Think of a grocery store that has a German cockroach infestation. The cockroaches can directly contaminate food items, like those found in the deli department, but customers also can take the cockroaches home with them. Though bed bugs have not been shown to transmit pathogens, it is well established that they can cause emotional trauma. Bed bugs are spread like viruses, moving from place to place through human activity.
Rats, mice, American cockroaches and flies all find themselves in filthy areas and then can exploit a plumbing or structural defects to find their way into our customers’ homes. Imagine a rat living in the sewers in an area that experiences a hepatitis A outbreak. The rat finds its way into your customer’s home and crawls across the kitchen counter. Public health pest, indeed.
Food security and the environment
It is hard to believe there will ever be enough space to fully explore the intersectionality of pest prevention efforts on many of the most critical issues of our time. With that said, I will try to tie a few of these issues together to show how what happens at our customers’ homes ripples across the planet.
Let’s say your company has 1,000 customers, and 1 percent of them gets some sort of pest in their pantries that ruins one box of cereal apiece. And let’s say that happens every month. In 12 months, that’s 120 boxes of cereal. Each of those customers is likely to replace that cereal box. That puts additional strain on the supply chain with stores having to order more, and manufacturers needing to make more cereal.
When that happens locally, food that might have been manufactured to be sent to other countries has to stay here. That in turn would mean those countries would need to produce more food. But what if each of these customers lost four boxes of cereal per month, or more? The strain on the manufacturing community grows.
Now, many countries experience that food loss on a massive scale already. In North America, we might lose a small percentage of post-harvest product due to pests, but in some parts of the world, 100 percent loss is not unheard of. If they already are losing 100 percent of what they can produce, either more people suffer from malnutrition or starvation, or they try to produce more food.
Typically, producing more food means expanding the amount of arable land. To gain more land available for farming, forests may be clear cut and burned, wetlands may be filled in, and other significant land use changes can occur. When that happens, by changing water usage, impacting runoff, and removing native vegetation, there is an impact on the climate.
Of course, I’m oversimplifying this argument — it would be easy to say the loss of one box of cereal here and there would not be tremendously impactful on a global scale. But the industry has a lot of customers, and the incremental loss of food in North America, where we already have a food waste problem, can have impacts far beyond what we can see.
When we think of our services in a global context, while working locally, every box of cereal that isn’t ruined by pests reduces the strain on the worldwide food supply. This helps ensure more people have food to eat and less land that will have to be converted for crop production. Every child who can grow up in a home free from cockroaches is one fewer child who will suffer from asthma attacks induced by cockroach saliva, cast skin and waste. Coordinated efforts among homeowners, pest management professionals, and vector control agencies can limit the levels of mosquitoes that spread pathogens.
Pest prevention services are undeniably essential for ourselves, our communities and our planet.