SINGAPORE: “Are you scared of cockroaches?” Thomas Fernandez asked over the phone, when I asked to join his staff for a couple of days.
“Terrified,” I told the CEO of local pest control company, PestBusters.
Yet, here I was a month later, lugging canisters of chemicals to my first job as a pest controller.
Ivan, an experienced pest management specialist and my mentor for the day, made sure my personal protective equipment (PPE) was worn correctly.
“Are there always cockroaches when we open up the manholes?” It felt like a stupid question, but I wanted to prepare myself mentally.
This was the first order of business: "Dusting" the manholes as part of the monthly maintenance of sewers to ensure they are free of pests like cockroaches. This involves spraying a powder-like chemical inside sewers and manholes.
Cockroaches in direct contact with the powder would die immediately, as I would find out later. But its residual effect is also powerful, killing cockroaches that pick up the powder on their legs and ingest it while grooming themselves.
Ivan handed me two long metal hooks with which to lift the cover. I secured them to two holes, and pulled. Nothing.
After two more tries, I gave up, and Ivan took over, lifting the manhole lid up and out with some effort.
Even in the dark, I could see the cockroaches scurrying about. I stood a metre away from the hole, very aware that the cockroaches could fly out at any moment.
“Today you won’t be handling the chemical,” Ivan said, adding I needed to be licenced to handle the powder.
“But the second canister has water, so you can try it out and pretend it’s the real thing,” he said.
While Ivan shone a bright torch into the manhole, I grabbed the canister in one hand and the spray nozzle in another, and slowly sprayed the water. By then, there were about 10 cockroaches running into and past the different sewer holes.
The manhole was also pretty deep, and to reach the cockroaches, I cringed and put my arm in further for the water to reach the bottom.
After what felt like an eternity, Ivan told me to stop, passed me his torch, and dusted the real chemical inside the manhole. The cockroaches immediately reacted to the white powder, and started flying madly. One flew inches from my face.
I screamed, caught by surprise.
Ivan was more thorough, pointing the nozzle in all directions, including in crevices and on top of the sewer to ensure the powder would be dusted on all surface areas.
Once he was done, he lifted the manhole cover and closed the sewer. He handed me some masking tape, and told me to ensure all four sides of the gaps surrounding the manhole cover were sealed.
“The cockroaches will try to escape, so we need to make sure all points are sealed,” he said. I bent down, by this time perspiring profusely, and taped the manhole.
“Okay, now we have to do all the others,” Ivan said. I looked up, unhappy to see five more manholes, and five more potentially terrifying encounters.
Ivan explained that we needed to be thorough. That’s how one can ensure maximum exposure of the cockroaches to the residual chemicals.
“SO DIRTY, WHY DON’T YOU SWITCH JOBS?”
On the way to our next location, Ivan told me he’s been in the industry for about 12 years. Previously, he worked in the banking industry. Surprised, I asked what made him make such a drastic switch to this industry.
“That’s what many people ask,” he said.
“I wanted a challenge. People are surprised when they find out I have a diploma. And when I tell them I work in pest management, they tell me to switch jobs.
“They still think it’s a dirty job dealing with pests and insects.”
Such perceptions are in stark contrast to the leaps the industry has made in professionalising its staff, improving safety and focusing on research.
When he joined the industry after completing his national service, Mr Fernandez said there were no safety guidelines for handling chemicals.
“I wasn’t using gloves or masks,” he recalled.
“In those days, we had knapsacks and your chemicals would leak onto your back. You’d be spraying, go back and shower and you think it’s okay but over time, the chemicals would build up in your blood stream.
“In fact there was such a high dosage of chemicals in my body that the doctor said I just had to stay away from using them for a while.”
President of the Singapore Pest Management Association, Andrew Chan, who has been in the industry for some 35 years, recalled workers keeping arsenic trioxide, a potent chemical used to kill termites, at home.
All this changed in 1998, when authorities enacted the Control of Vectors and Pesticides Act. This meant needing a licence to operate, and ensuring that staff attended basic training courses before handling chemicals.
Mr Chan, who is also General Manager of Anticimex Southeast Asia’s Merger and Acquisitions department, said the industry is also professionalising through a focus on education and higher skills.
True enough, I found out that there is more to the job than just spraying pesticide indiscriminately. During training, which is compulsory for new staff, the first thing I was told was that treating with pesticides is just one component of managing pests.
“More importantly, we need to know what is supporting the survival of these pests,” said Eugene Surendra, Pestbusters' director of technical and client services.
“If you can address that, your application of pesticide will be lessened.”
Indeed, the training session often felt like an entomology 101 class, with Eugene explaining the life cycles of various insects, their protective shells and what application methods would be most effective at eradicating these insects.
I also learnt more about the different species of insects. For instance, I found out that the cockroach I had come to fear and would encounter inside the manhole was an American cockroach. While they can fly and are bigger in size, they also breed slower than their German cousins, which are the smaller cockroaches that are commonly found in food and beverage outlets.
Hence, the American cockroach population was easier to control, much to my relief. The lesson on the life stages of pests would also be useful for my next assignment.
HALF THE POPULATION DOES NOT REACT TO BED BUG BITES
“Follow the blood” had been Eugene’s advice for the next assignment. The occupants of this one bedroom rental unit were facing a bed bug infestation, and a voluntary welfare organisation (VWO) had sought help on a pro bono basis.
Uncle Tyeo, one of the occupants, showed me the bites on his back. Both he and his co-tenant had been enduring the bugs for months. As he was putting his shirt back on, I saw a massive bed bug crawl across his blue shirt. After killing it, Ivan and I moved in.
I remembered my training with Eugene, when he said bed bugs lose about half of their blood meal within five hours of feeding.
And because at least half the population is thought to be unreactive to bed bug bites, identifying blood spots was the best way of identifying an infestation.
Walking in barefoot, I had barely taken two steps when I spotted dried blood spots on the white floor tiles.
Ivan led me to the bedroom area, where a spring mattress lay, black stains visible throughout. Across it was a shower curtain that was haphazardly drawn, hiding another soft mattress, a metal bedframe and items such as clothing and bags.
“The black stains are the bed bugs’ fecal matter,” Ivan pointed out. They were on the mattress and on the wall.
As Ivan inspected each part of the bedroom area, I thought of how a big part of the job was like investigative work. One needed both theoretical knowledge to understand the most efficient treatment methods, but experience allowed experts like Ivan to suss out these pesky creatures.
I remembered Eugene saying bed bugs could not fly or jump, so they needed to be close to ‘the host’. That’s why inspections almost always start where people sleep.
BED BUGS: A GLOBAL RESURGENCE
With more people travelling than ever before, pest control experts say bed bugs have become a big challenge.
Experts like Mr Chan and Mr Fernandez said people still associate bed bugs with having a dirty home. In fact, they said many of their clients are five-star hotels.
“In some hotels, the first guest might bring bed bugs into the room on his luggage, but the next two or three guests might not react to the bed bug bites,” Mr Chan said.
“By the time the sixth or seventh guest complains, the infestation has grown tremendously.”
“It’s not just in hotels, people travel to Batam to play golf - I’ve seen bed bugs on the ferries that take us to and fro,” Mr Chan said.
While chemicals are efficient in eradicating an infestation, Mr Chan technological advances in the industry are also proving to be effective.
Back in Clementi, I was about to use a relatively new method to treat the infestation. Behind the shower curtain, Ivan had pulled open a piece of rubber-like material attached to the wall. Out came adults and nymph bed bugs amids hundreds of small transparent bed bug eggs. It was a fascinating and creepy sight.
Ivan assembled the white contraption we had brought from headquarters, and turned it on. Instead of chemical spray, we were going to use a steaming machine to kill the bed bugs.
“Typically, we’d have to come back a week later when the eggs hatch, to do another round of spraying. But with this steamer, we can kill the live bed bugs and the eggs at the same time.”
The steaming machine could reach a temperature of 180 degrees Celsius, more than the 60 degrees Celsius temperature needed to kill bed bugs.
Under Ivan’s watchful gaze, I pointed the nozzle towards the mattress and carefully moved it along the length of the mattress. Every so often, a bed bug would fall off lifelessly, having been hit by the blast of hot steam.
It was tedious and laborious having to cover the entire surface area of the mattress with the steam. This meant slowly moving the nozzle lengthwise, down, across, up and then starting the process on a different section of the exposed material.
In just 15 minutes, my face was drenched in sweat, as was my T-shirt. My arms were trembling and my back hurt.
I also felt badly for Ivan, knowing I was slowing him down.
After treating the mattress and the wall above, I moved to the furniture behind the shower curtains. Every single item - from the rubbery material that hid the nest of eggs, to the bed frame and a disposed piece of tissue under the bed frame, had to be treated before being thrown away.
Almost two hours later, we were just about done. Ivan had determined that the infestation was limited to the bedroom area. He wrote a report on the infestation, while I advised Uncle Tyeo, under Ivan's guidance, to wash his clothes in hot water as a precaution.
EDUCATING MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC
This step is necessary and critical to ensure clients and members of the public play their part in keeping their homes pest-free. Mr Fernandez said the first point of defence against pests in hotels is the staff. One of his first major clients, a five-star hotel, faced a major infestation of rats and cockroaches.
Other pest control companies had not been able to get rid of the infestation. Desperate, the hotel offered him the job.
“The general manager was committed to work with me, as were all the heads of department,” Mr Fernandez said.
“Everyone had a role. For example, the security department would go around patrolling the staircase. If they saw food left behind that could attract a pest, they had to report it to housekeeping. Housekeeping became the reporting body which we would monitor. If everybody started to cooperate, I knew I could solve the problem.”
Education and awareness also needs to be extended to members of the public to keep estates clean. While there are reports of rat infestations in public areas, Mr Chan said they tend to be localised to areas where food is readily available such as near bin centres, markets and food centres.
“There are also kind-hearted people who feed stray cats and dogs, and the food is left there, which attracts rats,” he said.
MORE WORK BY INDUSTRY MEMBERS NEEDED
But with more than 300 players in the industry, they agreed that part of the problem could also be service quality. Both Mr Chan and Mr Fernandez noted that price-cutting is common within the industry to win Government tenders.
“Even with pest control engaged in town councils, we have so many cockroaches and rats, why? Because of price cutting,” Mr Fernandez said.
“But are they qualified to do the job? Are they doing it well? Do you grade them? Are you still giving the contract to the cheapest?”
More and more companies like Mr Chan’s and Mr Fernandez’ are investing in technology and research to offer a more efficient service to clients. Mr Chan gave the example of the steamer machine to kill bed bugs, which is more effective but also three times more expensive than a typical chemical treatment.
In treating termites, it is no longer the traditional use of a “sprayer and screwdriver” to check for infestations. Now they use carbon dioxide detectors and thermal imaging cameras to spot termites.
Mr Chan said this typically means they are also more expensive than those still using traditional methods. But he acknowledged that authorities are increasingly aware of these shortcomings.
“They are taking steps to evaluate the tenders in a more professional manner and not totally depending on pricing but also service quality,” Mr Chan said.
Done for the day, Ivan and I headed back to PestBusters’ headquarters in the East. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. I asked Ivan how I stacked up against other newcomers.
“Not bad lah, it was tough today,” he replied.
“Hey Ivan, do cockroaches have a smell?” I suddenly asked. It was something of a strange super power I had prided myself in having, to the amusement of friends.
Ivan laughed, saying they indeed had a smell, as did other pests like bed bugs.
“You see, you are a natural for this industry.”
I sat back, feeling vindicated after all these years. Maybe I was.