Risky Business: Risk Communication

Features - Business Management

Gathering the right information can keep lawn care technicians from getting tongue-tied when customers ask questions about pesticide use.

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November 23, 1999

A pesticide is any material used to control a pest, according to Philip Catron, president, Natura-Lawn of America, Frederick, Md.

“If I use soap and water to control a grub problem, I’m using a form of pesticide,” Catron, explained, listing other common household items that are pesticides, yet aren’t perceived as such, including bleach and a pet’s flea collar.

While defining the term ‘pesticide’ and surprising the lawn care customer by naming everyday items as potential hazards doesn’t offer proof to the safety or lack of risks associated with pesticides, implications can be made for either argument, Catron said.

“There is a big difference between ignorance and a lack of knowledge,” Catron stressed. “Perception is what you’re dealing with here and that’s what needs to be addressed. Consumers are able to comprehend information about pesticide use, but they do need to be properly educated first.”

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN. Lawn care and landscape contractors and pesticide manufacturers have a variety of views on how pesticide-related information should be communicated to lawn care customers.

The amount of information about pesticide use that should be relayed to customers varies based on Environmental Protection Agency standards and each state’s regulations, according to John Buechner, director of technical services, Lawn Doctor, Marlboro, N.J.

“Certain states, in their pesticide regulations, require disclosure of all of the products that may be used in a lawn or landscape program prior to the first application of the season, common and trade names of the materials, percent of active ingredient as well as the EPA establishment number,” Buechner said. “Some states also require a technician to disclose all of the safety precautions the homeowner should take following an application.

“But,” Buechner continued, “it is generally a good rule to review safety information with your customers regardless of state law.”

When state and EPA regulations are not dictating what should be communicated, landscape technicians and pesticide manufacturers are torn between how much information about safety should actually be conveyed to a customer. Too little isn’t good, especially when it comes to keeping pets and children off of the lawn for 24 hours after a product is applied or until it dries. And too much information may scare customers into canceling their lawn care service.

“You don’t want to miscommunicate or downplay the need for pesticides, yet you don’t want to cause more discomfort than is necessary in your customers,” said Steve Jedrzejek, director of technical services, LESCO, Rocky River, Ohio.

General pesticide and pesticide safety information is hard to relay to customers, especially when their fears are fueled by what they hear in the media, by activist groups or by what they don’t know, Jedrzjek added.

From customer to customer, pesticide-related concerns vary, which is why risk communication has to be dealt with on an individual basis, according to Tim Maniscalo, government public affairs, Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, Ind.

“You have to give customers as much as they want, which is way less than what technicians and the government think they want,” Catron explained. “You have to give them information in segments and then build upon their level of interest. Most people only want the basics. Don’t give them the whole candy store the first time they come in.”

Some contractors don’t feel that pesticides are even a concern to their customers.

“We service 9,000 to 10,000 customers,” stated Paul Wagner, president, Masters Green, Sterling Heights, Mich. “In my experience, a customer’s No. 1 concern is results – not safety. They want the lawn to look good.”

Customers also have a tendency to not want to know pesticide risk information, added Richard Linsday, founding president, Evergreen Lawn & Landscape, Fairfax, Va.

“Most of my customers had lawn care in the past or want it now,” Linsday said. “They trust us. They would rather know the when, why and how of applying the material vs. what’s in it and what risk can be associated with it.”

POLAR OPPOSITES. Ultimately, there’s a positive way and a negative way to communicate pesticide ingredient and risk information to customers. Most contractors feel differently about what points they consider positive and what points they consider negative.

As a proof of pesticide safety, many contractors share EPA pesticide testing information with their customers (see “The Proactive Solution” on page 108), said Mark Coffelt, business support manager, AgrEvo, Kansas City, Mo.

Comparing pesticide risk to other everyday risks is another way to ease customer concerns, Coffelt said.

“Sharing information gives customers a level of comfort about what goes into the development of pesticides,” Jedrzejek added.

“The public perception of risks in everyday life shows that of 30 common activities, pesticide risk always rates toward the bottom of the list, 28th in this case,” pointed out Coffelt, listing smoking, driving a car, swimming, skiing and playing football as a few of the other common activities that pose more of a risk to people than pesticide use does.

However, some contractors disagree that this information is ‘positive’ to communicate to their customers.

“Don’t get defensive,” Catron insisted. “Don’t talk about these 30 common activities or the EPA testing information. You have to deal with customer concerns by talking about facts, not by trying to prove or disprove pesticide safety. Trying to prove something is being defensive. Instead, admit that you use pesticides, give customers the definition of a pesticide, explain how you’re going to use it and what kind of results it should provide.”

After applying the pesticide to a customer’s lawn, a technician should tell the customer to stay off of the lawn and to keep children and pets off of the lawn for 24 to 48 hours. The reasoning for this, however, should not be for safety reasons, Catron said.

“Posting of the flag used to be enough for safety, but today it doesn’t provide the sense of precaution it was designed to,” Catron explained. “So, we tell our customers to stay off the lawn for 24 or 48 hours so that the weed control product or pesticide can do its job, which is true. Telling the customer to stay off of the lawn for safety reasons only invokes fear.”

The Top 3 List

    The top three most-commonly asked customer questions about pesticide use and their answers:

    1.Can pesticide applications harm dogs or cats? No, not if label instructions are followed. All pesticides are carefully tested before they can be registered by the EPA and sold. Part of this testing includes determining possible effects on non-target organisms, such as pets. Pesticides that pose an unacceptable risk to non-target organisms cannot be registered. Of course, you should follow the same re-entry procedures for cats and dogs as is recommended for humans. Wait until the treated area dries (in case of liquid application) and, for granular materials, comply with labeled directions for reentering the treated area. If there are any requirements regarding when pets can return to treated areas, these instructions will be on the label. Remember, some pesticides are developed and formulated for use on pets.

    2. Do pesticides cause cancer in people exposed to low doses of pesticides over a period of time? Before a pesticide product can be registered and marketed, it must be evaluated as to its potential risks and benefits. Only products determined to have a reasonable certainty of no harm on the environment or human health can be registered by the EPA.

    There is no specialty product on the market known to cause cancer in humans. Some pesticides have been shown to cause tumors in laboratory animals when fed extremely high doses throughout their lifetime. The doses are many times higher than possible levels of human exposure. The American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs states that there is only conjectural evidence, at best, that pesticides may be carcinogenic.

    3.What are “idiopathic environmental intolerances,” and are they related to pesticide use? There is considerable debate whether this phenomenon is a legitimate illness. Most recently, a committee of the World Health Organization properly identified the phenomenon as idiopathic environmental intolerance (IEI), which generally means it is a phenomenon of unknown cause that seems to have an association with an intolerance for environmental factors.

    Clinical ecologists believe that the accumulated body load of multiple exposure to chemicals triggers illness. They contend that illness is caused by a deregulation of the immune system that normally protects individuals from disease. As proposed by the clinical ecologists, deregulation may result in increased sensitivity or allergic reactions to food and other common environmental compounds or lowered resistance to infections or cancers.

    There is no theoretical or medical evidence supporting this concept of “environmental illness” or “immune deregulation.” Traditional allergists, represented by the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, have failed to find a link between patient symptoms and sensitivity or allergy to chemicals.

    Information from Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment.

Instead of focusing on combatting the negative ideas some people associate with pesticides, other contractors focus on emphasizing the positives about pesticide products. One positive way to communicate general pesticide and safety information to customers is by explaining the important of Integrated Pest Management, if that’s the way the lawn care technician applies pesticides, Buechner said.

A successful IPM program, according to Catron, includes:

  • Prevention, which can be practiced by conserving the natural enemies of turf pests through the selective use of biological and synthetic pesticides and planting improved varieties of turf that have resistance to insect and disease attacks.

  • Monitoring, which is watching and recording problem pests throughout the growing year.

  • Controlling, which includes the use of biological or chemical treatments only when necessary to prevent major lawn damage and save beneficial insects that help destroy other pests that can damage the lawn.

Another form of positive communication for Linsday comes with the fear his customers have of liquid formulation pesticides.

“My customers fear liquid more than granular because they have seen the technicians out there who’ve carelessly sprayed liquid pesticides into gardens or on children’s toys,” Linsday explained. “They associate bad chemical spills with liquid pesticides. Using the granular formulation of pesticides is a big selling tool for us.”

Since all formulations of pesticides share the same potential risks, Jedrzejek said whether a technician uses granular or liquid formulation, it’s important to convey the ultimate importance of pesticide us

SUPPORTING MATERIALS. Most technicians leave some general pesticide information with their customers in the form of pamphlets, brochures or handwritten notes before applying pesticides to make customers aware of when they will be arriving and what they will be doing after the application is complete. Manufacturers supply pamphlets to contractors when they buy a product from them, but most companies produce in-house brochures with information specific to their company included on them.

“These should be kept very simple and informative,” Catron said, encouraging handwritten notes after an application as a more personal way to reach a customer. “Just write a note to explain to your customers what you did and the benefits they should soon see as a result. If the note is handwritten, there’s more of a chance they will read it.”

When compiling information for the pamphlet, Linsday recommends contractors remember what their customers are really interested in.

“Most clients are not concerned with active ingredients,” he said. “They are more concerned with how much you use, how often and why.”

Also available from manufacturers for lawn care technicians to give to their customers are Material Safety Data Sheets, an informational sheet every pesticide product has along with its label, Coffelt pointed out.

“The only problem with customers seeing those is that they explain what the contractor purchases – not what is applied, which can mislead the consumer,” Maniscalo noted. “What’s actually applied is 99 percent water and 1 percent product. When most pesticides dry they adhere to the turf/soil and exposure is minimal, especially because it is so diluted – some manufacturers offer an MSDS for this 1 percent solution.”

Natural vs. Organic.........

    While most pesticides are man-made (synthetic) or derived from items in nature (biological and biorational), others – and many fertilizers or other lawn care products – are termed “natural” and “organic.” Customers may ask what these terms mean. There are no universally accepted definitions, but suggested definitions are:

  • Natural – A product derived from animal/biological, mineral or plant sources, in a form substantially as it occurs in nature. The materials may be altered or manipulated to put them in a physical form that allows them to be efficiently used in the application process by the homeowner or professional applicator.

  • Organic – Any substance containing the element carbon is, by technical definition, organic. Both naturally occurring and man-made products may be organic. The common misconception that organic and natural have the same meaning may cause the non-technical consumer to believe that a man-made organic material is natural when it is not.

  • Natural-based – The term “natural-based” is generally used to describe a mixture of materials that includes some materials that may be properly described as natural. The portion that is natural is frequently undefined. The other portion may be man-made pesticides or fertilizers.

  • Organic-based – The term “organic-based” is generally used to describe a mixture of materials that includes some organic materials. The portion of the product that is both organic and natural is frequently undefined. The other portion may be man-made pesticides or fertilizers.

  • It is important to understand that “natural” or “organic” products are not free from risk.

    – Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment

Lawn care technicians can also give their customers a number of ways to contact other resources and obtain more information on pesticides as well as pesticide use:

  • National Pesticide Telecommunications Network – an information service sponsored by Oregon State University and the EPA that can be at 800/858-7378 or at http://ace.orst.edu/info/nptn/.
  • Customers can be directed to their local Cooperative Extension Service listed in the blue pages of the local phone book.
  • There is generally an 800 number on the product package for direct contact with the manufacturer.

The author is Assistant Editor with Lawn & Landscape magazine.

The Proactive Solution

    Here are a few positive communication points about pesticides that lawn care and landscape contractors can discuss with their customers:

  • Environmental Protection Agency regulations and the registration process. The pesticide industry is one of the most highly regulated in the nation. After thorough review, EPA registers only those uses of pesticide products that pose minimal risks.

  • Pesticide testing. Many people are unaware of the rigorous testing that pesticides must withstand.

  • It takes a pesticide manufacturer seven to 10 years to test and register a product.

  • More than 120 tests are performed, many to evaluate environmental and health impact.

  • Only one pesticide in 20,000 makes it from the lab to the market.

  • A product costs between $30 million and $50 million to register.

  • Integrated Pest Management. IPM is a system of controlling pests (weeds, diseases, insects or others) in which pests are identified, action thresholds are considered, all possible control options are evaluated and selected control(s) are implemented. This program stresses the prevention of pest problems and the safe and responsible use of pesticides when necessary.

  • Pesticides enhance the quality of life and the environment. Discuss with your customers what the quality of life would be if there were no pesticides to treat the bothersome pests and weeds that invade homes, lawns and public areas, and can often transmit diseases and allergens. –Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment