How many times has a customer asked: “Is it safe?” I recently had a customer ask this question about a product we were using; they were concerned about their kids and their pets. But, I’ve gotten it from nearly every type of account I’ve ever visited. From concerns about kids, pets, the elderly, non-targets, food, water, and the environment, it has been brought up in a number of situations. I will admit my first reaction when someone asks me, “Is it safe?” is to quip, “Is water safe? You can die from water.” (Read about dihydrogen monoxide at www.dhmo.org.) So what is safe? Merriam-Webster defines safe as “free from harm or risk.” So, are the treatments that we use as PMPs risk-free? No, but the way we use them makes all the difference.

WE FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. You have all heard it a million times: follow the label. We use products in a manner as stated on the label. If the label states “place in a secured and locking bait station,” or “don’t apply when rain is forecasted,” we follow those instructions to keep non-targets from being affected by our treatments. By following proper mixing, application, storage and transportation instructions, we can reduce the possibility of spills, misapplications, and potentially bad interactions with other chemicals.

WE PROTECT OURSELVES. Also on the label are requirements for personal protective equipment (PPE). Many labels require applicators to wear long sleeves and gloves. Be sure you have all necessary PPE and don’t take safety risks. The site you are working at may also have additional PPE requirements. In a warehouse you may have to wear hearing protection and steel-toed shoes. In a food prep area you may need a hairnet. A fully stocked and readily available spill kit is invaluable. You never want to have to use it, but you don’t want to not have it when you need it.

WE FOLLOW IPM. By using all the non-chemical tools in our toolbox, we often reduce the amount of pesticides that are needed. Encouraging customers to deal with sanitation and exclusion issues frequently means that less chemical is needed, applications can be smaller, and reapplications are reduced. Talking to customers about their role can help foster a partnership, which in turn makes our job as PMPs more successful. A great example of this is asking customers to deal with water sources on their property to reduce the number of breeding spots for mosquitoes.

WE CHOOSE CAREFULLY. We can further reduce the risk to non-target organisms (including people, pets, pollinators, etc.) by choosing our pesticides and the application methods carefully. For a homeowner with ants, we may want to pick a bait station rather than doing a broadcast spray. For a food-processing facility with Indian meal moths, maybe we can treat with mating disruption instead of fogging. Using targeted products like insect growth regulators that are specific to insects can further reduce hazards and exposure to non-target organisms. Sometimes, combining products, such as IGR’s with a regular knock-down insecticide, prolongs the residual life of the treatment and fewer overall applications may be necessary. Another possibility is choosing a product based on the signal word. If possible, we can use something with Caution instead of Warning, and more importantly be able to explain the difference to your customer. While you can always hand over the label and SDS to the customer, having a quick conversation about what you are using and how you plan on using it will often ease a lot of trepidations.

WE CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVE. Another aspect of safety is the pest itself. Cockroaches can aggravate allergies and physically carry pathogens. Rodents can carry diseases like hantavirus and the plague. Ticks transmit Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Mosquitoes spread a host of diseases that kill millions of people a year. What is the hazard of potentially acquiring a life- threatening disease as compared to a pesticide treatment? As PMPs, we are protecting public health! I’m not advocating using scare tactics about how dangerous pests can be, but we can inform people about the potential risks and the rewards of having a well-done treatment.

Truman’s Scientific Guide to Pest Management Operations has a great line: PMPs have a legal, professional, and ethical responsibility to apply in a way that reduces risk. We can’t eliminate all risk, but by being informed, prepared and professional, we can greatly reduce the risk for potential harm to people, pets, non-targets and the overall environment. I never like to use the word “safe” when I’m talking to customers; instead I focus on the reasons I do what I do. Chances are, they’ve heard some really scary stuff online and they just need some accurate info. So, the next time someone asks you if it’s “safe,” you can be armed with great responses and can help educate customers about what we do, how we do it and the importance of a professional service.

My favorite “is this safe” inquiry was from a guy smoking a cigarette, holding a beer and about to light his grill, with raw hamburger sitting out in the sun. I hope he cooked those burgers well done!

The author can be reached at chartzer@gie.net.