How we answer that question says a lot about our credibility and our professionalism. So it might just pay to think about some of the better ways to talk about pesticide risk. I'm not an expert in risk communication, but I've had the opportunity to talk with lots of people about pesticides. And I find that most people are a lot more accepting of pesticides as tools if they are approached properly and with an olive branch rather than a stick.
Of course, if people made decisions about risk based on logic and reasoning, we could answer questions about pesticide risk with facts and figures. But experts in the field of risk perception tell us that when it comes to assessing risk none of us are very rational. Hence we fret over the threat of catching Ebola in America (1: 13.3 million), but don't worry daily about being in a car accident (1: 9,100 chance this year). For this reason, I know we won't convince everyone to hire a pest control company tomorrow, but I believe with the right approach, we can offer consumers a little peace of mind about their pest control service.
Here are a few suggestions for talking with potential customers about pesticide risk:
- Show your customer you care. Let them know you are concerned about their safety and make every effort to keep indoor pesticide use to a minimum through the use of IPM (assuming this is true!). Assure your customer that you use only those pesticides that are necessary to do the job you're being asked to do.
- Avoid use of the word “safe”. There is no guarantee of absolute safety for any pesticide, or drug--or any activity we do, for that matter. Instead use the concept of risk. We can guarantee a level of risk, if we can never guarantee absolute safety (a one in a million risk is not absolutely “safe”). Although the EPA does not “approve” pesticides, it will not register a pesticide unless it's persuaded that there is no unreasonable risk of adverse effects associated with its label uses.
- Pet peeve: Avoid comparing the toxicity of pesticides to food items like table salt. While it's true that table salt has toxicity, and some insecticide LD50 values show less toxicity than table salt, most people don’t buy it. After all, we produce salt to be ingested. Insecticides are produced to kill stuff. Its apples and oranges--not a fair comparison. When comparing toxicity, compare your products to another pesticide or consumer product that the customer already uses. For example, many pets are treated by vets for fleas with the same active ingredients used in household pest control. If they have already accepted the risk in applying a product to their pets, then it’s not unreasonable to propose use of the same product outdoors or in protected crevices of the home with even less exposure.
- Let your customer know that you are concerned about the risk of working with pesticides, because your exposure risk is so much higher than theirs. This sort of explanation is especially helpful because we base many personal decisions on the experiences of friends and acquaintances. Your confidence in your ability to work safely with pesticides is a powerful witness to those you meet.
For potential customers who believe they are sensitive to chemicals, especially pesticides, you may need a slightly different approach. Ironically, these folks often need to be talked out of using pesticides. What I mean is that even chemically sensitive clients think they need an "organic" pesticide or repellent, to get rid of their pests. Even though they are chemical averse, they are still of the idea that there is a chemical (albeit natural) out there to control their pest problem.
Often these callers haven't considered the possibility that there might be a non-chemical solution to their pest problem. This is where knowing your pests comes in. You might be able to offer some environmental modifications, pest proofing or biological control options that can moderate or lessen the pest problem sufficiently. Or you might be able to confine treatments to outdoor areas. Or they might consider baits (termites, ants, some other crawling insects) as non-volatile, hypoallergenic alternatives to sprays, dusts or aerosols.
This month it might be worth a little time talking with your staff about how to better talk about pesticide risks. Your sincerity, along with that olive branch, can go a long way toward making that customer with pesticide concerns a customer for life.