Good Restaurants = More Bugs: 5 Things Exterminators Know
Anyone can deal with one or two spiders or a handful of ants, but when you come home to find a swarm of roaches carrying off your cat and/or grandmother, it's time to call a pest control professional. We spoke to veteran exterminator Ben Denny, who told us that working as a poison-slinging vermin destroyer provides you with a unique perspective on the world, including some unexpected truths that most of us would never have guessed (mostly because we prefer not to think about it):
The Non-Chain Restaurants Are The Most Bug-Ridden
You might be surprised to hear this, but due to stringent parent company regulations, chain restaurants are some of the cleanest places you can eat. A single pest control company can live almost entirely off of restaurants like Olive Garden or McDonald's. We'll go to one chain restaurant, do a bunch of deep-cleaning, and then immediately go to another chain restaurant.
Meanwhile, independent mom and pop restaurants -- you know, the real joints where the discerning locals eat -- are very often nests of foul, pestilent horror.
As opposed to the spiritual horror that comes from eating at Olive Garden.
They'll pay for us to come out but are rarely willing to spend enough money for us to fully solve their problems. This isn't necessarily out of greed -- a lot of these places run on such small profit margins that they simply can't afford to have us completely eradicate an infestation. The trick is doing just enough to beat the health inspector, which in some cases requires nothing more than getting a receipt showing that you've paid to have some pest control work done. I've had restaurants simply offer me $50 for a bogus receipt (which I, of course, never accepted) just to keep the health inspector at bay.
And things do get bad. The worst I saw was a Chinese restaurant where plates were stacked in a sink with five or six roaches sitting between each plate. Another time I walked into a place and saw an unidentified black grunge accumulated in the corners. I thought it was compacted dirt, so I started to talk with the owners about how cleaning stuff like that up would help with their infestation problem. However, as soon as I touched the grunge, it turned into a sea of roaches and scurried away. They had been clustered so tightly together that they looked like a single patch of grime. So yeah. If cleanliness is your thing, eat at Chipotle.
Dead Cockroaches Get Into Your Lungs
Roaches already make everyone from kindergarten-aged girls to their adult fathers shriek at a pitch that could shatter a wine glass. What most people don't realize, however, is that roaches are actually extremely dangerous to human health. When a roach dies, it leaves its shell behind, which crumbles into rancid fart dust and can float into your unsuspecting lungs. A bad infestation can mean thousands upon thousands of roaches, which means people can effectively develop "roach lung." We're not making that up -- many people (not just pest control workers) get asthma from roach dust. It has to be the most passive-aggressive attack in all of nature. "You will choke on our desiccated corpses!"
Just picture this, but all up inside your respiratory system.
Of course, we still have to deal with the more obvious dangers -- for instance, in this job you'll get stung by bees or wasps several times per week. You get desensitized to stings after a while, but it doesn't necessarily prevent the swelling. The risk of allergic reaction is real, so it's a common habit to remove things like wedding rings before bee and wasp jobs to prevent an injury your spouse would never forgive. See, when you get stung in an extremity (such as your finger), the venom doesn't really have anywhere to go, so swelling can be quick and intense. I've seen seasoned pest control guys whose wedding rings have weld marks on them because the hospital had to use specialized equipment to cut them off.
On the plus side, we now know Green Lantern's weakness.
People Assume You're There To Either Rob Them Or Bone Them
If you've ever visited a porn site, you've probably noticed a video in which a service professional (such as myself) is greeted at the door by an attractive young person who wants to be "sprayed with organic chemicals," so to speak. Now, I shouldn't have to tell you that this happens so infrequently that you could safely say it has never actually occurred, but there are apparently some people out there that can't quite grasp that subtle distinction.
"I'm here to gas your basement. That's not a euphemism unless you're really into that."
For example, we once got a call from a woman who had us come out and do a basic cricket and spider extermination, only to get a call from her enraged husband a week or so later. He had found the receipt for our visit and accused us of having sex with his wife and writing the invoice to cover our tracks, because he and his wife belonged to an extremely conservative religious sect that prohibited the killing of living things (including spiders). Apparently his religion doesn't include scripture about calling complete strangers over for a sweaty afternoon of pelvic destruction, or else it would've occurred to him that spraying a bunch of crickets was probably the more likely reason for our visit. It took a long time to sort out, and nobody walked away from it happy, because there's not a handbook for dealing with the part of your job where you unwittingly committed mass genocide in the eyes of a customer's religion.
And if it isn't sex, it's robbery. The job sort of requires us to go through your house, but some people are convinced we're there to case the joint for Danny Ocean. Once, I was in a woman's house and noticed she owned a number of porcelain Japanese Geisha figurines. I had recently been to Japan, so I made some small talk with her during which I mentioned that I had seen some figurines just like hers while I was over there and that they were pricier than people might think. Later that day we got a call from the police, because the woman had contacted them convinced that I was planning to return to her house and steal her figurines.
Like how bank robbers case the joint by talking to the teller about how much
they love other people's money.
I obviously hadn't stolen anything, and that problem went away, but you quickly learn that if anything of the customer's goes missing near the time you provided service, the customer is going to assume you stole it. I've seen guys get fired over accusations of theft, only to have the customer call back later and say never mind, they found what had supposedly been stolen. Good thing we all keep a spare bag of spider eggs on hand to drop like a smoke bomb at the houses of those who wrong us.*
*We do not actually do this.
We Cut Corners Everywhere
We have pretty well-defined guidelines on how we're supposed to use our chemicals, but that's all they really are -- guidelines. If pest control has to spray your house to get a problem under control, and the job requires a certain amount of chemicals for every two or three rooms, we might use up to twice the recommended amount. We don't typically get paid for a return visit if we didn't solve the problem the first time, so it makes much more sense on our end just to nuke everything all at once.
And that's how you get rid of ants.
Thanks to shows like Breaking Bad, most people think pest control workers have crazy bio-suits they can throw on when doing a big chemical job, and boy do I wish that were true. When we actually do get gas masks, they're usually the kind that people wear to keep dust out, not chemicals, and the basic rubber gloves we wear don't do a whole lot to keep us from swimming in pesticide when a pressurized hose decides to burst.
The rainbow toe socks are just for morale.
Safety equipment is also a hassle. Take bee suits, for example. They're essentially coveralls with a mask attached, which we'd often have to wear over our clothes, as getting temporarily naked on the job (even to change clothes) can get you fired and/or arrested. But where I live, summers become unreasonably hot. So, a lot of us pest control guys frequently skip putting on the suit to avoid heatstroke and just hope we can eliminate all the bees before getting stung into another dimension.
If this sounds unthinkably dangerous, keep in mind ...
The Chemicals Are Actually Very Safe (And "Natural" Alternatives Don't Work)
Back in the 1950s and '60s, pest control companies used really unsafe chemicals like malathion, which, while they killed the shit out of bugs, also killed the shit out of peoples' nervous systems. These chemicals were eventually phased out, and the Bhopal disaster of 1984, wherein thousands of people were killed by a poisonous gas leak at a pesticide plant, pretty much put the final nail in pest control's chemical coffin. After that, big companies like DuPont really pushed to make chemicals safe, and these days pesticides are engineered to be people-safe, even when they're misused. "Misused" is a word here meaning "inhaled and possibly drunk."
That's right -- many of the pesticides we use could actually be ingested with no immediate adverse effects (although by no means should you ever do so). How do I know? Because one guy on my pest squad would literally spray the chemical in his mouth to show concerned customers just how safe the chemicals were. Unsurprisingly, we got several phone calls about this, so we had to tell him to knock it off. But the point is, he's totally fine, as of the last time I saw him.
See, he looks great! (He makes masks for a living now.)
Chemical companies don't like to get sued, so most modern general-use pesticides exploit weaknesses in insects that humans just don't have. Some customers are aware of how safe the chemicals are and ask us to spray their kids' lice-ridden hair or get rid of their dog's fleas. We never do, but if we did, it probably would be completely safe. Even some of the most infamous banned chemicals, like DDT, are actually very safe and arguably still the most effective means of pest control.
Pictured: A totally safe use of DDT.
Now, many of the concerned people prefer a "natural method" to some kind of chemical, which would make sense if any natural methods freaking worked. For example, two of the most common methods I've seen used for ant removal are laying out cinnamon and borax (a naturally occurring mineral commonly found in detergent). I have seen ants go marching right through that stuff and not even come close to getting sick. They'll simply build a new hill about a foot away from your little cinnamon pile just to mock you.
And here's the thing -- where the chemicals we're using have been engineered to not hurt your toddler if he gets some of it on his face, if you get some cinnamon into his nose or eyes, get ready for some intense agony. Meanwhile, borax can burn your eyes or make you nauseous, and has been added to the E.U.'s list of substances that can potentially cause birth defects. But hey, at least it's all-natural!
You know what else is all-natural? The swarm of spiders in your house.
We actually do use a few organic sprays, but only because they work in limited situations, and they are also worse than chemicals. The main one is pyrethrin, which comes from chrysanthemum flowers and is used in things such as flea dip. Now, synthetic pyrethroids are actually less harmful than the organic ones, but there's no way to get around that word "synthetic," so people keep using the more dangerous organic version.
Yes, it takes a shitload of pyrethrin to kill a man, enough that you'll only die from it if you've been chugging milkshakes made of the stuff, but enough exposure can cause asthma and convulsions, even in healthy adults. And that's the point: People tend to forget that "natural" doesn't mean "safe," because more often than not, nature is designed to kill you.
Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy for Cracked. If you have an awesome experience or job, hit up the tipline at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ben Denny would like you to watch him force himself to be an adult here and check out his awesome line of e-cig juice flavors here.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Horrifying Things Only Garbagemen Know About Your Town and 4 Scary Things You Only See Cutting People's Power As A Job.
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