Most of us want to walk gently on this earth. Except for when it comes to vermin and termites and pests, and then we want to stomp hard.
You might think you can do both, enticed with advertisements for green or earth-friendly pest controls, but according to Dr. Michael Weyman, deputy director for Clemson University’s Regulatory Services, you need to keep in mind that any of the so-called green products haven’t been through the rigorous efficacy testing required of the other pesticides.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has federal oversight of pesticides, Clemson has a cooperative agreement with the EPA to oversee pesticides and licensing in the state, as well as to investigate misuse.
If you use green pest control, you may have to compromise. Either you are going to be using compounds that are toxic, or you may have a hard time being pest-free.
“I know there’s a big green push on right now,” Weyman says, “but ‘green’ has different definitions. Green is more a concept than a defined thing or practice.”
Palmetto Exterminators is one company that has responded with a green program, but Bert Snyder, Palmetto’s technical director, says Charleston’s “high pest pressure” has caused some clients who initially wanted all green to revert to more traditional pest control, or opt for the hybrid program that Palmetto has started.
“If you do the green, you have to have a higher tolerance for insects,” Snyder says.
And just because the green programs use things like essential oils, it doesn’t mean they aren’t toxic.
“A lot of people have a misconception. They think green is not toxic, but if it didn’t kill insects, it wouldn’t work, so it’s a toxic product. It’s more natural, but it controls them by killing them,” says Hank Worden, supervisor of pest control in the Charleston office of Ledford’s Termite and Pest Control.
About 10 percent of Ledford’s clients request green treatments, he said.
“I did have a customer on James Island. She loved (the green treatments). Her 5-year-old son was there and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘Killing bugs.’ She thought we were just repelling them somehow, but when the bugs crawl through the treatment, they get it on their bodies and then when they groom their bodies, they ingest it and die. Before I could even get back to the office, she had called and canceled.”
The solutions for different pest problems differ, but each “green” solution has drawbacks. While the cost for the treatments is about the same, the time for the treatment to kick in can be a little longer, and the time between treatments can be a bit shorter.
Termites and pests
Palmetto’s green program uses many products that are exempt from EPA regulation.
Snyder says Palmetto uses citric and cedar oils and citronella as repellents, as well as products made of boric acid that will kill roaches. The company also kills any spiders, wasps, etc. that it finds onsite using brushes or vacuums. Snyder says many customers opt for the hybrid approach, which combines the green approach with spot treatment using more traditional EPA-regulated pesticides.
The hybrid treatments usually require twice a year visits and the green approach requires more frequent visits, according to Snyder.
“Things like cinnamon oil and those kinds of things are very user-friendly,” says Weyman of Clemson. “The difficulty is there may not be a whole lot of efficacy, depending on the pest. If you’re looking for the most environmentally friendly way to get rid of termites, it’s probably a bait installation where it’s put in the ground and the termites eat the slow-acting toxic substance. It has to be slow-acting so the termites don’t know where the poison is coming from. Conventional liquid treatments are safe, providing the labels are followed, but people seem to have more of an aversion and lean towards bait installation instead of conventional liquids.”
“I’m not familiar with any products that are green to get rid of mosquitoes,” Weyman says flatly.
A mosquito treatment company contacted for this story declined to comment.
“When you see mosquito abatement, whether it’s county, municipal or a state contractor, they are not using green products, they’re using pesticides designed to kill mosquitoes,” Weyman says. “The problem is, it’s not species-specific and that’s why you have to be stringent about weather conditions and time of spraying. If you have an aerial application and you fly over a bee yard, and you haven’t notified the beekeeper to close down the hives, then you’re going to kill those bees.”
Much has been written about the importance of bees to the environment, and Weyman says he agrees, but adds that it’s a matter of weighing the “human-risk side.”
“You can't just let go of the human hazard when we’re worried about Zika or West Nile Virus,” Weyman says. “It’s very important that those be suppressed and there’s no other way to do it but use these traditional general-use products. That’s why we worry.”
He says that Clemson has created an agricultural compliance specialist position to proactively work with those spraying and the beekeepers to ensure communication to minimize the damage to pollinators.
Vermin, other critters
Most companies eliminating rats and other rodents will poison them with stations baited with an anticoagulant that causes the rats to die within a few days of ingesting the poison.
Weyman and other vermin removal companies seem to agree that the risks of secondary poisoning to a pet or other creature eating the poisoned rat is minimal. The trace amounts of poison in the rat’s system aren’t dangerous. Still, there is a risk when amateurs toss rat poison pellets where pets and other animals, as well as children, can get to the pellets themselves.
That’s why Nathan Agee, wildlife control operator for Animal Pros, prefers to keep the rats out in the first place.
“When we are looking at a home or sealing up a commercial structure, it can take three to five days to get it sealed. Within a week, we can have everything done,” Agee says.
Some people think poison is cheaper, he says.
“With poison, if the animals can come and go, there’s no telling how many animals from the outside are eating that poison as well. Poison’s not a problem-solver, it’s just a temporary Band-Aid,” he says, adding that if the poisoned rat chooses not to leave and dies in a building’s walls, there’s “a really bad smell.”
Prevention best solution
Although Charleston residents’ fight against bugs and rodents seems never-ending, experts agree that the best solution is keeping your property inhospitable to the invaders.
“We educate about manipulating the environment to reduce conducive conditions,” Snyder says. “Things like putting lids on trash cans, keeping bushes trimmed back, keeping mulch down to a minimum, removing leaf litter and repairing rotten wood on a house. If we can eliminate those items, it makes treatment a whole lot easier.”
Getting rid of pests with toxic substances, even green ones, requires licensing. Clemson maintains a database of licensed service providers at http://regfocus.clemson.edu/dpr/greenbook.htm