Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pest Control for Hotels

I've been staying at the same hotel in College Station for the past twenty years and have watched many managers and more than one remodeling come and go. I've got a grudging affection for the place, despite it's worn sidewalks and sometimes thin walls. Maybe it's convenience, maybe it's because the place is a magnet for other Extension employees during conferences, and maybe it's just the relationship you develop with a business partner over time. Mostly the place has returned my loyalty with good service and a friendly staff--not to mention, free Internet and breakfasts.

My colleagues and I joke about it being time to move to better accommodations, but until this week I've resisted. On two different nights this week I found a cockroach in my room (neither of which survived the encounter, I should add).

The strength of my repulsion about the cockroaches surprised me. I'm not one to regularly check my headboard for bed bugs before settling in a hotel room. Spiders don't bother me at all (unless they're brown recluse spiders). But the free-range German cockroaches in my room changed my feelings about my room.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not especially squeamish about German cockroaches. I handle them in the lab; I've reared them and even bought them, for goodness sake. But it's different when they show up next to your bed stand. I start wondering, "Where else has this guy been?" "Where will he go when the lights are out?" and "Do I open my mouth when I snore?"

To me as a customer, the cockroach was more than an icky bug . It represented an invasion of my quiet place--the place I come to relax at the end of the day and sort out my thoughts--the place I expect to be even cleaner and more tidy than my own home (at least messes at home are my messes). To me, it ultimately represented a lack of caring on the part of the hotel management and staff.

Now I know it's probably impossible for a hotel to guarantee that a guest will never encounter a pest. And I hope and believe, after reporting my concerns, that this hotel will call a professional to service and inspect that room--and rooms around it. But I also know that for every cockroach seen when the lights are on, there are probably at least a dozen more in hiding. One cockroach might be an accident. As an entomologist, I know that two is no accident.

The funny thing is that the night after I discovered my unwanted visitors, I entered my room to find that it hadn't been serviced that day. Trash in the trash can, bed unmade, towels where I left them in the morning. It was still the cockroach that caused me to decide to find alternative accommodations, but the poor room service confirmed to me that my first reaction was correct. The hotel didn't care any more.

So why the long rant about last week's hotel stay? The incident reminded me of the importance of customer service and the importance of the pest control industry. To some people we may just be the "bug guys" and "bug gals", but we know better. We keep people in business while protecting the public.

Lest we pat ourselves on the backs too hard, a word about quality of service: It's too easy to pass the buck. If that hotel had pest control service, and it probably did, someone wasn't doing their job. Having been a technician long ago, I know how monotonous some service routes can be. It's always a temptation to slack off in an account, especially one without much "action". Hotels can be among the toughest, because typically you don't see a lot of problems. It's too easy to fall into a careless routine room after same room...e.g., spray [or, if you're doing "IPM", bait] under the sink and behind the toilet and you're out of there.

If your company services hotels, remind your employees to treat every room as if it were the only room they serviced that day. For the hotel's customers, each room is the only room they will see that day. For as few as one or two cockroaches, your hotel might lose a loyal customer--one that likely will tell others. Soon that hotel, your customer, is losing business as it gains the reputation as the hotel with "roaches". And that's bad for your business as well as the hotel.

I'm not sure where I'll stay next time I visit the home of Texas A&M University. But I know what my standards are. And a pest free room is at the top of my list.

Texas A&M Conference and Workshop

Ant expert Dr. John Klotz, of the University of California at Riverside, reviews identification and control of ants.It always takes commitment to set aside a few days to improve your skills and knowledge. This is especially true when the destination is College Station in January. That's why it was encouraging last week to see almost 400 registered pest management professionals brave the weak economy and show up at the 63rd annual urban pest management conference and workshop at the College Station Brazos Center.

Organized each year by the Texas A&M University Center for Urban and Structural Entomology, the A&M Workshop may not be as well known nationally as other venues, but in my opinion the quality of the presentations and the professional fellowship to be found at this meeting is unsurpassed.

As part of his annual report, Dr. Roger Gold updated attendees on the State of the TAMU Center. Dr. Robert Puckett was introduced as the new Assistant Research Scientist, replacing Dr. James Austin. Puckett will help oversee all key research projects and training programs offered by the Center. The chair endowment, according to Gold, is currently valued at $1.6 million, and total grant income in 2008 was $570,600.

Head of the Department of Entomology, Kevin Heinz, announced a new initiative to begin a fund-raising drive to raise money for a major renovation of Center facilities. Gold was also honored by the Texas Pest Control Association for his 20 years of service to the Texas pest control industry. Mr. Bill Clark, of Bill Clark Pest Control in Beaumont, presented a plaque and expressed his admiration for the work Gold has done.

This year's special invited speakers included two Californians, Lloyd Smigel, of Care Management Consultants at Valley Center, and Dr. John Klotz from the University of California at Riverside. For the Ivey Memorial Lecture, Smigel gave an entertaining presentation on the business side of pest control, with a special emphasis on the pitfalls associated with famThe 393 registered participants at the 2009 conference was down only 11% from last year, despite the economy-wide belt-tightening.ily-owned businesses. Klotz gave presentations on urban ants (identification, biology and management) and on emerging public health concerns with venomous arthropods. Klotz stressed the importance of good identification and discussed the challenges of ant control, especially of Argentine ants. He noted that 73% of California homeowners with ant problems attempt to control the problem themselves. But only 10% of homeowners achieved good control doing it themselves compared to 63% of those who hired a PMP. Klotz also signed copies of his new, co-authored book, Urban Ants of North America and Europe at the meeting.

Jim Muse, Director of the Structural Pest Control Service, congratulated the crowd on getting their credits early in 2009. He encouraged all applicators to not wait until the end of the year, because schedule conflicts can always disrupt training plans, as he has observed. He cited several recent cases where licensees faced suspension for missing their planned, late-year education classes due to accidents or other emergencies. He gave an update on recent changes to regulations affecting the industry. He noted that changes to rules affecting all the regulations except school IPM were adopted in late 2008. Many of the proposed changes to the rules that came out earlier this year scaled back in response to industry opposition. Examples include changed degree requirements for certification, length of time for required record-keeping (will remain at two years), and new rules that would have called for immediate license revocation should business insurance coverage gaps occur.

The industry, Muse said, can expect ongoing revisions including some substantial changes to the school IPM regulations.

The next Advisory Committee meeting to review proposed school IPM changes will be held on January 29. Copies of the proposed changes to school IPM rules have not been posted online, but can be obtained through professional associations including TPMA, TASB and TASBO.

Other highlights of the conference included the exhibitor venue, presentations from new and outgoing students, and hands-on training with short courses on Friday. If you've never attended this conference, you owe it to yourself to come and get your CEUs early next year.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Of birds and bats: histoplasmosis and human health

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control should remind us of the importance of managing urban bird and bat populations. In the December 19 edition of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), there is a report about a Pennsylvania-based, church mission group who had been renovating a church in Nueva San Salvador, El Salvador. It turns out that as part of the renovations involved cleaning and sweeping around some bird and bat roosting areas. Nine of the 11 persons with the initial group returned home with flu-like symptoms. The symptoms were eventually diagnosed as histoplasmosis, a disease caused by inhaling the spores of a fungus, Histoplasma capsulatum. Eventually eleven more volunteers from two other missions groups from Pennsylvania and Virginia, working at the same church at approximately the same time (Feb-Mar, 2008), also met the case definition for the disease.

Histoplasmosis is a pest-borne diseases that PMPs often hear about, but rarely encounter (at least knowingly). It is not a disease that requires travel to the tropics. The pathogen is common in the U.S., and the disease is probably more common than most of us realize.

The fungus live in soil, and people typically get infected when they breath dust from soil in areas where H. capsulatum naturally occurs (the term for this is "endemic"). According to NIOSH publication 2005-1009, H. capsulatum is endemic throughout the U.S., although the proportion of people infected by H. capsulatum is higher in central and eastern states, especially along the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. Fortunately, once contracted the disease is not contagious.

The interesting thing about this disease, from the perspective of the PMP, is that "the fungus seems to grow best in soils having a high nitrogen content, especially those enriched with bird manure or bat droppings." The organism is believed to be carried on the wings, feet, and beaks of birds thereby increasing the risk of infected soil under bird or bat roosting sites or in manure accumulations inside or outside buildings. Some bird species whose roosts have been shown to be contaminated include blackbird (starlings, grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and cowbirds) pigeons, chickens and bats. Some are concerned that growing problems with Canada geese could also be contributing to spread of the disease to people.

Because the fungus cannot infect birds, there appears to be little risk of contracting this disease from bird droppings on window ledges or inside buildings. It's only when these droppings contact infested soil, that the fungus is able to spread and become a health risk.

Bats are a different story because, according to the CDC, they can become infected with the pathogen. So bat droppings can be potential sources for infection.

How bad is it?
Histoplasmosis symptoms vary greatly. Most people who contract the disease show no, or only mild symptoms. In some of us, histoplasmosis will result in flu-like, respiratory symptoms, including including a general feeling of illness (malaise), fever, chest pain, dry or nonproductive cough, headache, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, joint and muscle pains, chills, and hoarseness. In some cases, the disease can become chronic and result in more serious complications, even death.

Histoplasmosis may not be one of the most serious diseases we will be exposed to during our lifetimes, but because it is rarely diagnosed, it probably causes more lost work days that we realize. And it is certainly able to make us sick enough to miss work.

What should PMPs do?
The first concern of a pest management professional who encounters bird or bat infestations is to take steps to reduce the risk of breathing H. capsulatum spores. When working in dusty areas with bird or bat droppings, a good respirator should be worn. All it takes to cause infection and subsequent development of histoplasmosis is a brief exposure to inhaled contaminated dust. Remember that not all air filtering devices are equal and "people have developed histoplasmosis after disturbing material contaminated with H. capsulatum despite wearing either a respirator or a mask that they assumed would protect them." For detailed information about different respirator types and when they might be needed, see the NIOSH guide section on respirator protection.

In addition to breathing protection, disposable overalls are recommended by the CDC. This reduces the risk of worker and family exposure to dust that settles on clothing during exposure to contaminated soil.

Knowing how to protect your customers is also critical here. In areas where public access is minimal, or where remediation of droppings is taking place, the posting of signs warning people about histoplasmosis risk is a prudent first step. Anywhere that bird droppings sit on soil should be considered a high risk site for histoplasmosis. The public and unprotected workers should also be restricted from any areas with bat guano accumulations.

Areas that are being cleaned up should be sprayed with water to minimize dust movement. Obviously bird and bat control, and modification of the roosting environment are critical elements in reducing the long-term risks associated with this disease and others.

Histoplasmosis is only one disease risk caused by bird and bat roosts around human activity areas. While we shouldn't fear or loath birds and bats in natural settings, management of their roosting areas in urban locations are an important part of what our industry does.

Making the most of pest control's "dog days"

Historically the term "dog days" refers to the hottest, most sultry part of the summer. According to Wikipedia, the term was first used by the Greeks and Romans (who called this period caniculares dies-- literally, days of the dogs) after Sirius, the "Dog Star", the brightest star in the heavens which becomes visible each year around early July. For the ancients the dog days marked an evil time "when... wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid." In modern usage, "dog days" also refers to a slow, unproductive time of year, or as the Random House Dictionary puts it, "any period of quiescence [resting, or inactivity]".

By the latter definition, January is surely the "dog days" of the pest control business. As I sit inside and watch the freezing drizzle out my window, it's hard to remember how busy we all get during the termite, ant, spider and scorpion season (though cockroaches don't seem to care what season it is).

Entomology Department Head Kevin Heinz addresses Texas Pest Control Professionals at the 2005 winter workshopNevertheless, there's plenty to do right now. This is, after all, one of the best times of year to get yourself re-trained, and to invest in the professionalism of your employees. Next week one of the best training opportunities of the year for those of us in Texas will take place in College Station at the 63rd annual Pest Management Conference and Workshop.

The keynote speaker for this year's meeting is Lloyd Smigel, columnist for Pest Management Professional magazine, motivational speaker and pest control company consultant since 1988. You won't want to miss him or any of the other great speakers and topics next week. The conference traditionally kicks off with the Bill Davis Memorial Golf Tournament on Tuesday (Jan 13), and the sessions run from Wednesday 7:45 am to noon on Friday.

Whether you live in Texas, or Kentucky or California or Florida, make it a point to support your university or association annual training conferences. Yes, it can be expensive to send yourself or your employees for 3-4 days of training at an out-of-town site. But consider the benefits. Some of your staff (perhaps for the first time) will begin to see themselves as professionals, part of a large, important industry. Others will be encouraged when they see the kinds of research being conducted by a large university to answer their questions and help them serve their customers better. All should be inspired by presentations by graduate students who are dedicating their careers and lives to the pest management industry. And if it's available to you (it is at the Texas A&M conference) don't pass up the chance to tour campus research labs devoted to urban entomology research. And last, but not least, among the benefits of these training classes, you and your employees will establish contacts with other professionals, some of whom may become lifelong friends.

One of the things that impresses me most about our industry is how people are willing to share what they've learned with others--including competitors. Knowledge may not be free, but it's available to anyone willing to learn.