Friday, August 12, 2011

Bed Bug Academy offers surprises

I wasn't sure what to expect when I got invited to attend the Bed Bug Academy event sponsored last month by the Texas Pest Control Association. I knew that I knew something about the subject of bed bugs, but I also knew there was a lot more that I needed to know. Boy was I right on the last part.

In case you haven't been paying attention, over the past year or so bed bugs have generated an incredible new business in products that offer control as well as conferences on how to build your bed bug business. The North American Bed Bug Summit offered last year and again next month in Chicago, IL is perhaps the biggest venue.

The experience and manpower behind these conferences, including the smaller Bed Bug Academy here in Texas, is Bed Bug Central.  Brainchild of Phil and Richard Cooper, of New Jersey's Cooper Pest Solutions, Bed Bug Central has established itself as the premier training provider for pest control companies wanting to enter the bed bug arena.

After attending the summit I've concluded that the Cooper brothers do a pretty good job of presenting information in an understandable and comprehensive way.  No one could criticize them of being superficial in their coverage either. Their main instructor, Jeff White, is obviously well experienced and a good communicator.  The result was a stimulating and helpful boot camp for anyone wanting to begin, or get better at, bed bug treatments.

I have to admit that I’ve yet to personally treat an apartment or hotel room for bed bugs. I have, however, attended a number of presentations by bed bug researchers and PMPs at Entomological Society of America meetings where the process has been described. I’ve always come away amazed at the amount of work these folks say needs to be done to thoroughly treat an apartment or room.

Typical research-based recommendations for treating a room include removing all furniture and belongings, treating every square inch of room and closet, and thoroughly inspecting, treating and replacing every furniture piece before returning to its place. In addition, the standard scorched earth protocol requires extensive preparation on the part of the tenant or homeowner to clean up and bag most of their personal belongings. Just describing the process makes me tired.

The BBC approach evolved from the real world where tenant cooperation and follow up is unreliable, and technician time costs money. Consequently the stripped down approach taught in these classes is different from what I expected to hear. This is not saying that the BBC system is not a lot of labor--it is.  But the BBC approach, I think, is more sustainable and practical for most accounts.

According to White, the biggest challenge in bed bug control is to make bed bug control more affordable. So rather than charge all accounts a higher rate based on worse-case scenarios, they hedge their bets with a careful assessment and cost estimate for each account. Standard service starts with a two-technician, 20-minute inspection to evaluate the numbers of bed bugs and the complexity of the account. All sites are then classified as low (less than 20 live bed bugs), moderate (21-100 live bed bugs) or high; and treatment complexity is assigned on standard room contents plus additional costs for more cluttered or complex living situations.

Service of units with low level infestations is the most stripped down.  It includes a thorough inspection and treatment of the bed and all furniture within two feet of the bed. Unless other furniture or closets are seen to be infested, they receive only minimal treatment with residual sprays. Other rooms of the house are only given thorough inspections and treatment if other people are known, or suspected, to be living there. Wall junctions and baseboards are treated, but not ceilings unless bed bugs are observed. Steaming, which is a slow, but essential part of the service, typically takes only about five to ten minutes per apartment with this targeted treatment approach. Vacuuming is used to remove live bed bugs encountered during the inspection.  A two foot area is steamed around any spots where live bed bugs or their droppings are found.  Only in high- or moderately-infested accounts does the company begin to come close to the "scorched earth" strategy.

Perhaps the most surprising difference in the BBC approach is their Limited Prep model. The idea behind limited prep is that when tenants scramble to clean things up before the treatment date they inevitably scatter bed bugs into sites where they would not normally be found, such as closets or bookshelves. By leaving things in place, bed bugs are more easily found and treated or vacuumed. Using this model the tenants are asked only to the clean the unit enough to allow technicians access. Items under and around the bed are requested to be left in place. If the technicians encounter anything that needs to be laundered or emptied, they leave the items bagged with an instruction sheet on top telling the tenant what to do for the next service.

Evidence for the success of the limited prep and tiered treatment approach is Bed Bug Central’s customer promises. Moderate infestations are charged on the assumption of have three to four services. If bed bugs are still a problem after four services, the client is not charged. The company also boldly offers a five-month "No bugs--no bites" guarantee for most accounts.

Refreshingly, the focus of the BBC approach was not on which insecticides work best. All current bed bug insecticides have their limitations, we know. According to Dr. Dini Miller, the best we can expect with the current arsenal of insecticides is contact kill. In other words, “you only get what you hit.” None of the pyrethroid insecticides are consistently providing residual kill--that is, once they have dried. This means that good application skills are absolutely essential. Heat treatments, barriers, traps, steam, cold, and vacuuming all should play a part in an effective bed bug control plan.

Of course the Academy covered much more than what I can in this short review. If you have a chance to attend one of these programs, I think you’ll find it worth your time. As to the inevitable question lurking in the backs of everyone’s mind, “Can anything good come out of New Jersey?” In this case I think the answer is YES.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Imprelis Recall Shows Limits of Registration Process

In case you didn't catch the flurry of news stories about a week ago, a herbicide from DuPont has recently been associated with tree damage in a number of northern states.  This article from the Detroit Free Press lays out the story pretty well.

In response to the reports, last Thursday DuPont sent a letter to its turf management product distributors and announced a voluntary suspension of sale and product recall for Imprelis.

According to the letter, the damage appears to primarily affect certain sensitive tree species, "such as Norway spruce and white pine, but DuPont has also received reports of damage to other species. The majority of the reported damage is concentrated in a geographic band that includes Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Wisconsin."

According to Dallas Urban Forester, Micah Pace, no reports of tree damage have been reported here in Texas, but certainly this is an issue PMPs engaged in weed control should be aware of.  Any questions about the suitability of Imprelis for use in southern lawns should be directed to the DuPont hotline at 866-796-4783.

So what does this northern herbicide story have to do with Insects in the City?  The Imprelis crisis illustrates one of the inherent limitations of the pesticide registration process.  Our country has an excellent system for testing and regulating pesticides, but it's not perfect.  Imprelis had been tested on a variety of tree species and under a variety of conditions, but not on all species under all conditions. The fact is that safety testing for all products continues even after a pesticide has been registered and sold. The process is sometimes referred to as product stewardship, and it provides an extra measure of protection for consumers.

Obviously it would have been better and less costly for DuPont had the alleged tree sensitivity been detected during the testing phase, prior to its sale and use around the country.  But to some extent real world testing is always going to be more comprehensive and rigorous than the pre-registration screening process. It shouldn't come as a complete shock that problems would arise with a new (or even older) commercial pesticide.

Rank and file PMPs should recognize this and be ready to report any unusual problems with an insecticide to the manufacturer.  These reports, in turn, are supposed to be reported to EPA as part of the product stewardship process. This is the way that our regulatory system, as imperfect as it is, must work.

UPDATE (August 12, 2011). There are two recent EPA updates on Imprelis:  Describes stop sale EPA issued August 11, and notes that 7,000 incident reports have been filed with EPA since June by the Manufacturer. Additional notes on the issue as well as some discussion about the label limitations on Imprelis regarding use of treated clippings in compost.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Like a search for an honest man

When I started working as an extension entomologist I began a collection of books and files containing all the pesticide labels that I might have to reference in the course of answering questions from the public. Today I've pretty much trashed all the hard copies of labels in my office, because nearly everything is available online.

This doesn't mean, however, that finding things is easy.

What got me thinking about this was an email announcing EPA's latest update of their search engine called the Pesticide Product Labeling System (PPLS). According to the email, PPLS is a collection of over 170,000 current and historical pesticide product labels that have been approved by EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs under FIFRA.

The newest version of PPLS contains enhanced features to help you locate labels and label information you might need. For example, you can:
  • Search by product name
  • Search by company name
  • Search by EPA Registration Number
  • View labels in PDF format
  • Search label content
  • View the history of products that have been transferred from one company to another
It seems to me that the ability to quickly trace an EPA Registration number is a useful feature here, especially when trying to decode a service ticket where the number was given, but not the actual label name or formulation. The history function of this website is also interesting. For example, if I want to see how a Termidor 80WG label read from 2001, I could look that up. You can also read the cover letter from the manufacturer explaining what amendments were made to each label revision. 

I guess this is something that would be useful to lawyers, so it's good to know that it's out there; but the EPA site still doesn't quite do it for me.  If I know what I want to kill, or where I want to treat, and want to see my product options, it doesn't provide any help.  It's not a full featured database.

When PCT online announced it's search tool I thought I had found the holy grail of label search engines for structural pest control. You have the option of searching by manufacturer, formulation, site, pest, state or product name.  The problem is that it doesn't work very well.  When I searched for cockroach baits, for example, it only retrieved two products--a JT Eaton boric acid insecticide dust (not a bait?) and a Nisus Triple Shot Bait Station.  What happened to Avert and MaxForce and Advion and the dozens of other cockroach baits out there?

Univar's Pest Web also provides a product catalog and manufacturer links on their website.  Both of these are useful, especially the product catalog which allows you to search for all products by a manufacturer, or all products in a certain category like "insect growth regulators".  But that's about as far as it goes.

Agricultural pesticides have their good databases such as Greenbook, CDMS and CropLife Foundation; but no such (up-to-date) service seems to exist for structural pest control.  

While searching for a specific label has gotten easier with the Internet age, looking for a list of available products to solve a problem has not.  The search for a good search engine is a lot like a search for an honest man. We're all still looking.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

No place to hide

A few months ago I had the opportunity to visit with scientists at Research Associates Labs in Addison, Texas.  They told me about a new application of DNA detective work that, I believe, has some exciting uses in the pest control industry.  Last week I had the chance to catch up again with one of Research Associates' scientists, Dr. Kate Johnson, who was explaining the service to PMPs attending the first ever Bed Bug Academy of the Southwest sponsored by the Texas Pest Control Association. More about that meeting in a later post, but to see what Dr. Kate had to say, and how the process works, check out the video below.

This meeting was Research Associates' Labs first introduction to the pest control industry. Until recently, their focus was on providing molecular diagnostics tests to vets and zoos. The techniques that Dr. Kate describes  may seem like cutting edge stuff to us in pest control, but the technology is not especially new.  Using a technique known as real-time PCR, DNA collected on a swab can be rapidly amplified so that it can be detected by laboratory equipment, much like a stereo receiver amplifies otherwise inaudible radio waves.

The key to pest detection is finding a piece of DNA that is unique to the target organism you wish to detect.  Once this DNA fragment is identified, special primers can be selected that will amplify only the target DNA strands.  If the unique DNA is not present, nothing get amplified and detected. Research Associates Labs has taken the time to customize the technique to look specifically for human bed bug DNA.  Using sterile swabs, a PMP can walk into an account and quickly sample the likeliest locations in a room for bed bug DNA. Once received by the laboratory, its only a matter of a few hours to learn whether bed bugs have been present in a room.

There are a few limitations to the procedure and how to interpret the results.  First, you have to take a good sample from the right spots in a room.  Second, some chemicals, including pesticides, can interfere with the results.  But perhaps most importantly, the test cannot easily tell whether bed bugs are still active in a room.  Because bed bug DNA lasts a long time in an indoor environment, one cannot assume that a positive test didn't come from an infestation that was eliminated a year earlier, for example.

With time, I suspect we'll see the real value of DNA testing in detecting low level bed bug infestations in homes where visual inspections don't reveal bed bugs, but where a client insists that bites are occurring.  Given the expensive nature of expanding bed bug treatment into rooms beyond a bedroom, the technique might also be useful when initially inspecting and bidding an account to determine whether additional rooms in a home might need treatment. At $15 a pop, hotels might find the service a little pricey for regular use; however the technique might be useful in confirming a positive detection of bed bugs by a canine bed bug team doing routine hotel inspections.

With additional tests, the DNA technique could be most helpful in confirming the presence or likely absence of biting mites, fleas and bed bugs from those mystery bug clients we encounter so often.  While there's not yet a test for the several home-infesting species of biting mites, cat flea and scabies mite tests are currently available.  Pretty soon I predict that bed bugs, and perhaps all pests, will have no place to go, no place to hide.