Internet Buzzes with Pest Control Sites
By Sue Zeidler
A nasty critter appears in the dead of night. But by the time the exterminator arrives the next day, the shaken homeowner has morphed into a self-described rodent "expert" by spending a sleepless night consulting the Web.
The Internet is crawling with pest-control sites and has transformed the estimated $6 billion industry by making consumers far more savvy than ever before. As a result, exterminators now have to work harder than ever to educate themselves.
"Consumers now have the ability to research products that could be used in their homes," said Brad Harbison, editor of Pest Control Technology Magazine and its Web site (http://www.pctonline.com).
For instance, he said, it's not unusual for an exterminator to face a barrage of tough queries from a stay-at-home mom who has trolled the Web for details about the potential hazards of pesticides.
In response, industry professionals themselves are using the Internet more frequently to hone their craft.
"The Web is not only providing more information to consumers, but is being used for training and communicating to technicians and professionals," said Cindy Mannes, a spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association, a trade organization with 5,000 member companies worldwide.
Some universities offer online programs on everything from integrated pest management to insect identification and customer service, while professional organizations provide networking rooms for industry insiders to solve consumer problems around the country.
Mannes said the group's Web site (http://www.pestworld.com) received more than 10 million hits in 2003, up more than 50 percent from 2002. About 80 percent of the communications came from the media and consumers, often in the throes of a pest crisis.
One consumer, for instance, sent an urgent note to the group's message board, citing what she thought were mouse droppings in her car, which was also starting to appear torn up on the inside.
After various exchanges, she learned she had Norway rats in her car. "She hauled her children out of the car, and our direction to her was to get professional help immediately," Mannes said.
TANGLED WEB OF INFORMATION
But while the Web has helped consumers in a bind, it has also confused many with misleading information.
"There is a lot of junk science out on the Web," Mannes said. "Like in any industry, there are a lot of groups who use the Web to distribute misinformation."
For example, she said that salt and sugar are not necessarily effective ant killers, despite what some Web sites say.
"Anything in the wrong dosage, be it salt or water, can harm even a human severely," she said, "but that doesn't mean that is going to eliminate your ant or termite or bed bug problem even if it can eliminate a few particular insects."
A little knowledge can also be a dangerous thing, particularly from professional pest-control Web sites.
"Maybe one product has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for use on spiders in one state, but not in another, and it could be against the law if they try to use a product that hasn't been registered in one state," said Harbison, the magazine editor.
For the most part, however, the Web has been a useful and efficient tool, according to Mannes, who said companies often bill and book appointments via the Web.
The National Pest Management Association also just launched a link for children, with vivid graphics and games to help them identify pests that are potentially dangerous.
"It's a great educational tool for children so they understand the difference between nuisance pests and fire ants," Mannes said. "There are a lot of diseases, specifically with mosquitoes coming back into season."
For a quick listing of useful Web sites, consumers can turn to Do-It-Yourself Pest Control Inc. (http://www.doyourownpestcontrol.com), which features nearly 30 pest control resources, including links to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state wildlife agencies and entomology departments of various universities.