UF Expert: Illegal Pest Control Operators May Be Coming To A Home Near You

Chuck Woods (352) 392-1773 x 281

Phil Koehler pgk@ifas.ufl.edu, 352-392-2484
Dempsey Sapp d.sapp@flapest.com, 352-376-2661

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GAINESVILLE, Fla.—Illegal pest control operators are increasingly common throughout Florida and other states, posing a threat to people and the environment, according to a University of Florida urban entomologist.

“We’re seeing more cases where small lawn service firms — people who usually mow and edge your grass — start offering additional services such as pest control for their customers, but these businesses are not licensed by the state to apply pesticides,” said Phil Koehler, a professor of entomology with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“It’s usually a case of untrained and unlicensed yard workers telling unknowing customers, ‘yeah, we can do that,'” Koehler said.

He said the problem is widespread in urban areas where yard workers, including many foreign immigrants, have no training in the proper application of pesticides, and they are not aware of state laws that require commercial firms and their employees to be licensed and certified. The unlicensed operators could expose themselves and others to harmful pesticides.

A common scenario, Koehler said, involves homeowners who may ask their lawn service to treat a pest in the grass or elsewhere in the home landscape. When there are fire ants or weeds in the lawn, for example, it may seem logical to let these same people perform needed pest control services. However, if they are not licensed by the state to apply pesticides, they are violating Florida law and could be fined up to $5,000 for each offense.

Koehler said the only time it is legal for an unlicensed lawn maintenance service to apply pesticides in the home landscape is when the homeowner supplies the chemicals and the hand-held container equipment to apply the material. The yard worker cannot tell the customer they’re in the pest control business or solicit pest control business. And they cannot use power equipment to apply pesticides.

“So, let’s be very clear about what we’re talking about,” he said. “It’s okay for your lawn service company to apply fertilizer to your yard, but when they start applying weed control products to the home landscape, technically that’s considered to be a pesticide application, and it’s not legal unless they are licensed by the state.”

Worse yet, Koehler said, there are cases where lawn maintenance firms have expanded their business by getting into structural pest control – applying pesticides in and around the home to control cockroaches, termites and other household pests. These practices are strictly illegal and could lead to serious health and environmental problems.

In Mississippi and surrounding states, for example, unlicensed pest control operators offered services for cockroach control and applied insecticides that were labeled or approved only for use on cotton crops. In this case, they applied methyl parathion — a highly toxic pesticide — inside homes. Now, five years later, the problem has turned into a $100 million Superfund cleanup site for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. And, Koehler said, the offenders are serving jail time because people, mainly children and the elderly, were poisoned by the chemical.

“We also have situations where unlicensed lawn maintenance people work around schools and leave pesticide containers on the site, creating a real safety and health hazard for kids,” Koehler said. “These are the kinds of problems we need to curtail as much as possible.”

If there are people in the neighborhood who are sensitive to chemicals, Florida law also requires pest control operators to notify residents before applying chemicals, he said.

Dempsey Sapp, president and chief executive officer of Florida Pest Control & Chemical Co. in Gainesville, said homeowners can guard against illegal services by asking to see the identification card of the person who wants to spray their lawn or shrubs to make sure they are working for a licensed company. If they find that their lawn maintenance company is operating illegally — or suspect that they are — customers should contact the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services by calling 1-800-435-7352.

“In my 35 years of experience, I’ve only had one customer ask to see my pest control identification card,” Sapp said. “To protect themselves, customers should ask to see I.D. cards.

“Even if their vehicle has a sign that says they provide pest control, they still may not be a licensed pest control operator,” Sapp said. “And, if you see a spray tank on the back of a yard worker’s truck or see pesticide containers that are not safely stored, it could be an unlicensed pest control operator,” he said.

“This is not a case of the pest control industry trying to be self-serving or protecting our customer base,” Sapp said. “It’s really a matter of protecting the consumer.”



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Posted: April 8, 2004

Category: UF/IFAS

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