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Exterminators Move Beyond Chemicals, Tout Public Safety


From the Orange County Business Journal

Gone are the days when an exterminator in a white mask shows up at a home or business with his can of stinky pesticide and sprays every nook and cranny. Todays exterminators who prefer to go by pest control technicians wear respirators, know entomology and use more targeted and environmentally friendly ways to do in bugs. These days, it's all about integrated pest management. Chemicals still are part of the arsenal. But so are nontoxic tricks, such as baiting, removal and exclusion, which don't kill but keep them out. Technicians even use heat and microwaves to zap bugs.

Like cockroaches, pest control companies are survivors. They've pulled through image problems, regulations, even recessions. It's a need industry, said Michael Katz, president of Anaheim-based Western Exterminator Co., one of the largest pest control companies in the West with 900 workers.

Pest control is a $5.7 billion industry in the U.S. that grows annually by 4%, according to Rob Lederer, chief executive officer of the National Pest Management Association Inc. in Virginia. Termites, the largest category, represent $1.5 billion of that. Residential pest control typically generates higher profits, though most exterminators do both homes and businesses. Western's sales were about $80 million last year. But rising costs everything from more training for workers to new regulations have cut into profits. The company's workers compensation premium went up 400% in the past five years, Katz said. It just makes me crazy, he said.

The upside for bug busters is people have become less tolerant of insects because more health problems are being linked to them, Lederer said. Cockroach droppings have been found to cause childhood asthma. Just about everyone is worried about mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus.

And while animals have defenders, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, bugs get no respect. Pest control companies play that up, often with a comical bent. Take Vista-based Pestgon Inc.'s slogan: If they fly they die. If they crawl they fall! Perhaps the most recognizable icon is Western Exterminator's Little Man wagging his finger at a mouse with a large mallet behind his back. Hallandale, Fla.-based Truly Nolen Inc., a franchiser of pest control shops, features cars with rat ears. San Diego-based Lloyd Pest Control's Bad Bug Web site has a lineup of Southern California's least wanted featuring cartoon pests itchy da flea and mickey da rat.

The biggest pest in California is tiny, brown and marches in a line, the Argentine ant. They have no natural enemies, said Lee Clifton, vice president and general manager of Hydrex Pest Control Co. of California in Los Angeles. Arguably the most hated bug is the cockroach, which likes to hang out at restaurants the largest users of pest control services. One roach is enough for a health code violation, said Patricia Gentry, food program manager for the county's Environmental Health Division's Food Protection Program.

In June seven Orange County eateries were closed because of cockroach infestation and three were closed because of rodents. When a restaurant is closed, it's an extreme infestation, Gentry said. The law doesn't require restaurants to have regular pest control service. But once they're shut down, they typically hire one so they can get up and running again, she said. They then have to be reinspected.

But when most people think of exterminators they think wood-eating termites, Hydrex's Clifton said. In the past, companies would get rid of termites by putting a chemical in the soil that lasted for years. Now the industry uses bait traps. Termites are lured to the traps and then take poison back to their colonies. The termite bait still has a chemical, said Michael Lawton, an entomologist and vice president of sales and marketing for Western Exterminator. But the chemicals don't last for long, and they are odorless, he said. One of the most popular products is Dow Chemical Co.'s Sentricon. Microwaves and liquid nitrogen are used to kill the dry-wood variety of termites that live in walls. Fumigation where homes and buildings are tented still is widely used to kill termites. Western did about 25,000 fumigations in OC last year. But the days of heavy chemical usage are gone. We are the most regulated industry there is, said Lloyd's Clifton.

The changing nature of the bug-killing business has made it tougher to find workers because the job requires more specialized skills. Anyone in California who uses pesticides must pass a test to become a certified applicator, field representative or operator, Western's Katz said. And crawling around in dark and dirty places hunting for bugs isn't a glamorous job. The county's Gentry said one time she sprayed a ceiling to see if any roaches were in there and was rained on by a shower of them. And pest control workers are like mechanics, people don't look forward to seeing them. Workers also have to pass security checks. People give us the keys to their houses, Katz said.

Compensation isn't bad. A technician earns $10 to $13 an hour, depending on experience. Then there are commissions and benefits. At family-owned Western theres paid medical, an employee gym, showers, a cafe, an outside picnic area and Starbucks coffee pods. The office is rather swanky and is decorated with historical photos dating back to 1922.

The industry has seen consolidation. ServiceMaster Co.'s Terminix and Rollins Inc.'s Orkin are the biggies and have been buying smaller companies.

The hope for Western and others is to see pest control become a monthly service, like gas or electricity. At Western a monthly residential contract goes for about $34 a month.