Public health pest

The British Pest Control Association’s Simon Forrester examines the UK’s growing pest problem and how local authorities have a central role in maintaining control of public health pests

Pest control has been seen as an easy target for cuts, often without consideration of the consequences should public health be adversely affected.

Reputations can be ruined and businesses destroyed if pest activity is allowed to develop in sites and businesses. Media and social networking sites rapidly pick up on and report about pest infestations, throwing organisations in to the media limelight without always considering the facts. Turnover and occupancy in hospitality related businesses can be seriously damaged by adverse publicity, significantly reducing operating profits. Pests and pest activity is of general interest to many members of the public, and media coverage can be sudden and intense. So for a whole borough to be seen as a haven for pests is just as potentially damaging, and will invoke the wrath of the local community.

The health risks
Many pests carry an associated health risk, and those that spread diseases are termed ‘Public Health’ pests. Rats for example carry a number of diseases including the potentially fatal Weils disease (Leptospirosis), and common houseflies carry a number of pathogens. 

Not only can pests spoil foodstuffs and stored goods, they can also damage the fabric and fixtures of building. Rodents are especially problematic in this respect as their incisor teeth grow throughout their life, and they must gnaw to wear them down. Items that can typically be gnawed are electrical wiring and water tanks, leading to fires, flooding and the risk of electrocution. Those of us with even the longest memories find it difficult to imagine major epidemics caused by pests – our eradication and control measures have kept such problems at bay. So pest control may be its own worst enemy; a victim of its success, if you will.

Coupled with this lack of awareness is the economic situation which focuses activity into key areas, with pest control often not being seen as vital. The situation in councils across the UK is worrying. BPCA carried out our second National Survey of Pest Species, which involved contacting every local authority across the UK to gauge their pest control activity, and allowed some analysis of trends and forecasts of future intent. The picture does not look good.

Over one fifth of Councils lost pest control staff last year and did not replace them. In the capital the problem is worse, with 40 per cent of London councils cutting back on staffing last year, despite the major tourist draws of the Jubilee and London 2012 bringing increased visitor numbers.

The number of Councils still offering free or subsidised pest control has also plummeted; yet research from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health shows more than half of the public see local authorities as the persons responsible for pest control, and a similar percentage would ask their council first for advice on a pest problem.

Will the problem flourish?
So is the gap between the public’s perception of pest control and reality causing pest species to flourish? As we know, pests are designed to thrive in the most adverse of conditions, and with very little reduction in control measures, their populations can expand rapidly. For example mice will reproduce at such a rate (6-8 offspring every 6 weeks) that a single breeding pair in an apartment block void will quickly spread throughout the complex and beyond, making control both expensive and difficult.

Similarly, rodents adapt so well to man’s attempts to control them that resistance to common rodenticides is growing, and both rats and mice are becoming more and more ‘bait-shy’, ie learning that the tempting food in the plastic box is best avoided. For professional pest controllers trained in pest biology and behaviour, this problem is acute, and for the untrained public, who often don’t read the label of the products they buy from their local DIY retailer, their success rate is very much lower. So with all these challenges, how can we maintain control?

The British Pest Control Association believes that we must work together to avoid significant outbreaks of public health problems brought on by pest activity. There is of course a role for both the public and private sector pest control professionals. But the third part of this equation, the local authority pest control service is also vital. In-house pest control teams offer local knowledge and experience, while being embedded in the body corporate ultimately responsible for the maintenance of public health. After all, if the public and private pest controllers fail to maintain control, it will be thrown back onto Councils to reduce pest infestations under the relevant legislation such as The Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1949. Local authorities can also deal with insect infestations under the terms of the Public Health Act 1936/1961, and where infested or contaminated food is served by eating establishments, prosecution is possible under the Food Safety Act 1990.

Almost 20 per cent of UK councils now contract out pest control services, and more worryingly, another 35 per cent currently have no in-house pest control service at all, leading us to the question ‘how are the public’s needs being met?’ One concern is that as local in-house knowledge is lost, the tendering process becomes more difficult, and once this recession ends the re-establishment of an in-house service is made that much more difficult. Local authorities are either contracting out, or trying to become more commercial, setting up contracts with the local RSL or even promoting their services alongside private sector companies.

It could be argued that if local authorities begin to charge, the public will either pay, go to a private contractor, or will try a DIY treatment. The evidence from CIEH shows the majority of people will pay something, but it is likely that this will be the last-chance option. So what of the ‘Do It Yourself’ route? While there is clearly a role for the public in pest control, one of the major concerns is that the public are not sufficiently knowledgeable to deal with pests in their homes.  Apart from the wasted expense of trying and failing to treat an infestation, the public may be storing up problems by increasing resistance to pesticides, or worse than that, causing poisonings of non-target species.    

Dealing with some species, such as cockroaches or pharaoh ants, requires skills that have been perfected over many years. Our belief is that it should be left to the experts, and that councils are the first port of call, supported by specialists in specific areas like bird management or bed bug control.

Doing nothing
But if the Council is charging for the service, the fourth option is of course to do nothing. And this is where the problems begin to multiply. Ask any private or public sector pest controller, and they will tell you that it is much easier to maintain control than to try to gain control of a pest population. Once a population has established it will rapidly expand to seek new shelter, food and water sources.And control in multi-occupancy sites is difficult at best. People’s reactions to pest species are difficult to gauge – some may even say that the rat infestation is fine, because they are a cute and cuddly species (sadly most people who have met a rat have seen one as a domestic pet, not in its more common environment of a sewer pipe or under decking). The recession is expanding the belief that pest control is somebody else’s problem, when in fact it is a problem for us all to face together.

And in terms of the use of commercial pest control, there are professionals and ‘professionals’. Because pest control is virtually unregulated (there exists no licencing scheme for public health pest control), and access to biocidal products is relatively easy (they are classed for ‘professional use only), it’s said that anyone can be a professional pest controller if the definition of ‘professional’ is someone who ‘does a job for money’. The belief of BPCA is that the definition of a professional must include proper training to a recognised level, plus regular updates to their knowledge of legislation, products, methods and systems. You wouldn’t go to a surgeon who trained 50 years ago and still used the same tools and methods, so why accept this from a pest controller? The HSE’s Chemicals Regulation Directorate recently wrote to local authority CEOs about pest control, emphasising the importance of professional users (using BPCA’s definition of professional).

The skills for the job

If local authorities have no in-house expertise, where are they directing the public? The pest control industry has reacted to this need by supporting the BASIS PROMPT scheme, an independent register of professional pest controllers currently with over 2,000 technicians on it. While it is easy to find a professional pest control company (such as a BPCA member), the staff who visit a site need to be trained and competent. If a Council recommends their residents use company X, but the staff sent to treat the infestation had no training, how would this reflect on the local authority? Our suggestion is to only recommend to the public that they allow pest controllers with the BASIS PROMPT card to treat within their homes. On this theme, our suggestion to Councils is also to ensure their sub-contracted pest control companies have 100 per cent of technicians on a recognised CPD scheme – without this how can you ensure the technicians know their job, and are not storing up problems for you to deal with later?

Another route to peace of mind is to use a member of a recognised trade association, which provides its members with advice and support, and regularly audits their practice. Councils who contract out services or who point residents to external providers should consider only recommending companies who are members of a trade association such as the British Pest Control Association which is the only UK pest control body to fully audit all its member companies.

So in summary, the three key players in public health pest control (the public, local authorities and professional pest control companies) have an interdependent role which must be preserved in order to maintain control. Each can learn from and help the other, vital in the current economic climate where many people’s first response is to do nothing, unaware of the long-term effects of their inactivity.

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