Exterminators accused of false advertising Some mislead about chemical safety, MaryPIRG contends; The environment


There's something about the ads of several pest control companies in Maryland that is bugging Daniel Pontious and his colleagues at the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

At a news conference yesterday, MaryPIRG released a report that it said was aimed at creating public awareness of what it called false advertising by pest control companies.

"We initiated an investigation into the marketing practices of pesticide companies in the state by researching yellow page ads placed in 20 phone books," said Pontious, executive director of the group.

"We found that many of these ads were misleading consumers about the safety of chemicals and violating FTC and EPA guidelines."

Pontious displayed several ads, among which appeared the phrases: "services are designed for safety of children and pets," "the bug stops here: our methods are safe & effective," and "we use environmentally sound pest management."

After hearing about MaryPIRG's claim, one of the main targets, Raymond Agnello, owner of Harford Termite and Pest Control, said he would change his ad, which states: "All chemicals are environmentally safe."

" 'Environmentally friendly' might be better suited for my operation," Agnello said.

"Environmentally safe, which is the same thing in this ad I've had for 14 years, simply means that it's safe compared to what we had. Nowadays, the chemicals don't linger in the air as long, whereas some of the ones we used in the '70s are probably still floating out there."

One of the alternatives to potentially harmful pesticides is what industry professionals call integrated pest management, which includes inspecting and identifying infested areas, determining habitats and pest thresholds, using traps and sealing up holes where bugs hide.

One practitioner of integrated pest management is Alan Cohen, owner of Bio-logical Pest Management, which serves Maryland and parts of Washington.

"Instead of just going in blasting, you have to think like a pest," he said. "Cut off your faucet, clean up and reduce their food and water supply.

"There are a number of ways to avoid just spraying harmful stuff around."

Agnello said he has been moving toward integrated methods since starting in the early 1970s.

"I only use chemicals when I have to," he said.

Ruth Berlin, coordinator of the Maryland Pesticide Network, a branch of MaryPIRG, said no pesticide chemicals, even if used in moderation, can be considered safe.

"The consumer really needs to keep an eye out for this," she said. "Studies show that households where treatment for pests were done are more likely to experience health problems, including childhood leukemia. Chances are, if it has the smallest toxin, it's not safe, and companies shouldn't say they are."

Federal Trade Commission spokesman Joel Winston said there are penalties for violating false-advertising statutes but that rules are enforced nationally rather than locally.

"There's nothing specifically regarding pesticides, but any deceptive ad violates the statute," he said. "But as far as the local yellow pages are concerned, attorney generals have to deal with it."

The inspiration for MaryPIRG's report came from action last year by New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco against Monsanto Inc., which said that its popular weed killer Roundup was as "safe as table salt."

Frank Mann, special assistant to Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said his office is interested in studying MaryPIRG's findings and examining the ads.

"It's something we are anxious to pursue after we find out more about it," he said.

"If the claims are warranted, we will proceed with an investigation."

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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