Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Office

For some reason that I have not quite figured out, winter is high season for mysterious bug bites. Post-holiday stress, extended periods spent indoors, dry skin, static electricity, low vitamin D... whatever the cause, the number of calls from folks who can not produce any actual pest goes up at this time of year.

Calls from office managers to pest control companies are not uncommon at this time of year. An email I received today is typical:
"We have had several employees being apparently bitten by an unknown pest. We are unsure of what it is; however, they are feeling a sudden pinprick-like sensation on their skin. These tiny painful jabs feel like insect bites and the outcome is itchy welts that look just like insect bites."

"We have had the area exterminated by professionals and treated the area with [two pesticides]. The pest professionals indicated that they don't believe the problem is a bug or insect issue. We are not sure the problem as it could be an air duct/air quality problem, allergic reaction, etc."

Although one cannot rule out insects or mites as a cause from this description, here were some points I asked my office manager to consider:
  • Possible arthropod causes include fleas (unlikely unless someone is bringing a pet to work) and rodent mites. Rodent mites emigrate from rodent nests and can bite people. They are small (about the size of a period.), but visible and can usually be pulled from the skin with a piece of tape at the time of the bite. Control of rodent mites starts with eliminating rodent infestation. Mite bites are typically limited to a small area of the office near to the rodent (or bird, in the summer) infestation. Rodent mites would be unlikely to be found biting people over a whole office--that would require one big rodent problem.
  • Winter is a time of dry skin and relatively high static electricity, and the number of complaints of “bites” in offices is higher at this time of year. It’s conceivable that floating fiberglass or other sharp fibers in air can be attracted to negatively charged legs and arms to cause prickling, though this is just a theory—untested as far as I know.
  • It’s a known phenomenon that one person’s complaint about “bites” is frequently contagious in office settings. Nearly every pest control professional who has been in the business for any length of time has stories about this. The power of suggestion is very real, and can often be dealt with by assuring employees that the matter is being handled and initiating a monitoring program with sticky cards to verify that there is indeed no real insect issue.
  • If no insects or mites can be collected, its most likely that the problem is imagined rather than real. Nonetheless, it can be difficult to convince employees of this and the best course of action is usually to work closely with the pest control company, even to the extent of spraying water or some other non-pesticide product to assure employees. Shampooing the carpet or installing air humidifiers may also help reduce dryness and static electricity issues in an office setting.
  • Skin welts can arise from a number of issues including skin irritation from fibers, reaction to scratching, allergies, etc. If the welts are minor and disappearing quickly, it suggests that a real insect is probably not involved.
As a professional you need to communicate honestly and fully with your building manager. If you opt to "shoot blanks", say with water or an air freshener, the manager should be fully informed and agree with the tactic.

Don't allow yourself to be pressured into applying insecticides for pests that you don't believe are present. Do use sticky cards to assure yourself that mites or some other unusual biting pest is not present. Fungus gnats, which are also common at this time of year, can often be the trigger that starts office rumors about biting pests; but fungus gnats do not bite and would not cause welts or itching. And please, let's do our part to stamp out the myth of cable mites and paper mites in this generation. There are no such things.


nobugs said...

Hi Mike,

I enjoy reading your blog. There are many reasons for these "mystery bites" and I agree with you on the need for PMPs to come to the root of the problem -- which may be pest-related, or not.

However, I was troubled by this part of the post:

"As a professional you need to communicate honestly and fully with your building manager. If you opt to “shoot blanks”, say with water or an air freshener, the manager should be fully informed and agree with the tactic."

It would be unethical for a PMP to “shoot blanks” and not tell the building manager.

However, even if the PMP is in cahoots with the building manager, I think this is not a good (or ethical) tactic. We have heard plenty of stories of “no evidence of bed bugs” where in fact there is a small and new infestation and where evidence is later found.

If employees are made to believe pest treatment was carried out, their response when bites continue may be simply to assume the building's PMP is incompetent. Many won't persist with following up if the problem does not go away. Some people will decide they have to live with the problem. We've even heard of people trying to self-treat their offices (bad idea!)

And if any of those outcomes occur, the office may develop a more serious problem.

I posted on this at slightly longer length at Bedbugger today, in response to your post.

Granted, I have a customer's perspective on this -- on the other side of the table from entomologists and PMPs. And granted, I'm also obsessed with bed bugs, but I think my concern could also be a problem if other pests are present in small numbers.

Thanks again for a thoughtful post!

Mike Merchant, PhD said...

I understand your uneasiness with the idea of pretending to treat an area for the sake of fooling some people. I hesitated to even bring up this aspect; yet I know many companies who have done just that, apparently successfully. It seems to me that a PMP's job sometimes requires dealing with difficult (and sometimes unreasonable) customers. I see using the placebo effect as a better alternative than spraying a pesticide that is unnecessary. And as a manager I spoke to yesterday about this said, by wetting a carpet you may be raising the humidity in an office environment enough to reduce the conditions (e.g., static) that might be the source of the problem. You make a very good point though. This approach could certainly backfire, so I think it should not be done unless you and the manager both agree that there appears to be no better solution.

nobugs said...

Thanks for your response, Mike!

If static is identified as a concern, then a humidifier might go a long way.