Monthly Archives: November 2015

The social stigma with six legs

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M OST Torontonians wouldn’t recognize a cockroach if it crawled across their plate,” says Professor Stephen Tobe, cockroach expert at the University of Toronto’s Zoology department.

The curious and the concerned often come to Prof. Tobe with home-grown samples, and are “horrified and disgusted” to learn what uninvited house guests really are. “People associate them with filth. They’re a real social stigma.” By contrast, Prof. Tobe tells how he watched as a waiter in a very expensive New Orleans restaurant calmly reached over and crushed in a napkin a large, southern specimen climbing up the wall. “They’re used to them down there,” he explains. “If you lived in Florida you’d be used to having the house sprayed once a month.” Torontonians, however, are rapidly becoming acquainted with these little beasts. Some might say it’s about time. Cockroaches have been around for literally millions of years and fossilized remains prove that they’ve changed very little over the eons. Obviously, they are well designed for what they do.

Everyone agrees they’re unpleasant, but are they harmful? Toronto is fortunate in having two world- class cockroach experts. Besides Prof. Tobe, there is Mrs. Janet Avery, Educational Consultant for the City of Toronto’s Health Department. Unfortunately, they disagree.

While Prof. Tobe almost comes across as the roach’s apologist, claiming the beast is no more dangerous than the house fly, Mrs. Avery is less charitable. When asked if the cockroach is a health hazard, she answers an unequivocal “yes.” Having completed an exhaustive study of Toronto’s roach population, she has no illusions. “I’ve been in apartments where they’ve dropped from the ceiling onto my head, crawled up my pant leg and hidden in the rubber door seals of fridges,” she recounts in grisly detail.

The cockroach itself doesn’t bite or sting but, according to Mrs. Avery, it can carry such unappetizing microbes as Salmonella and urogenital infection bacteria. Both the World Health Organization and the Public Health Act identify the cockroach as a health hazard. The main problem is their affinity for warm, damp places. They frequently create “runways” between the bathroom and the kitchen.

Prof. Tobe doesn’t see this at all. “The organic pest control companies like to spread this around because it’s in their interest. But when you challenge them, they back down, because they can’t support it.” He does acknowledge that a cockroach from the worst New York slum may carry dangerous bacteria. The cockroach is apparently the product of his environment. In relatively clean surroundings the cockroach is relatively clean.

Then, is a Rosedale roach better than a Parkdale roach? “I don’t think so,” laughs Mrs. Avery. “No one can tell where they’ve been.” While roaches don’t travel far under they’re own steam, they do get around. If they lay their eggs in a potato warehouse, anyone who buys a bag of those potatoes at their local supermarket may subsequently have a cockroach infestation.

Mrs. Avery also raises the important psychological stress factor. “Some people are so terrified, they can’t get up at night when the cockroaches are out. Or there’s the woman who won’t have guests over because she’s afraid a roach will pop its head up at the dinner table.” This sort of stress can be very unhealthy.

One thing Mrs. Avery and Prof. Tobe agree upon is that the numbers are growing. No one has taken a census, but when you consider the average female cockroach only has to be fertilized once to produce 20,000 eggs, their abundance is not surprising.

Perhaps, though, people are just becoming more aware of the cockroach. With a wave of young professionals migrating from the antiseptic suburbs to the sometimes funky inner city, one is tempted to dismiss the roach phenomenon as “a new sensitivity to an old problem.” Not so. According to Mrs. Avery, North York and Scarborough both have burgeoning cockroach populations. Even Brampton has a few crawlies.

The chief culprit is, of course, the high-rise apartment building where the sheer number of people carrying food, furniture and garbage in and out of the building increases the odds of infestation. Once a colony has established itself in a highrise, the plumbing and heating conduits provide safe havens even if the building is sprayed.

Mrs. Avery’s recent cockroach study focused on non-toxic pest control, Integrated PestManagement. Because of the controversial nature of the chemical sprays normally used, the Health Department has found another option. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) uses non-toxic compounds such as Boric Acid (dangerous if swallowed) and Diatomaceous earth, an abrasive substance which works well in tight crevices. When roaches rub against it, their shells are scratched, their bodies lose moisture and the roaches die of dehydration. Mrs. Avery also mentions such home remedies as crushed bay leaves or garlic. Both work as repellents. But the real secret, she says, is to “think like roaches.” Apartment dwellers should be aware that it is the landlord’s responsibility to control cockroaches where they are in sufficient numbers to be judged a health hazard. Some people object, however, to having their home regularly sprayed with dubious chemicals. In these cases the City of Toronto’s Department of Health tries to encourage landlords to adopt an IPM approach. This method does, however, demand a much greater time and energy commitment on the tenant’s part.

Perhaps the future hope resides in Hydroprene, a juvenile roach hormone which renders adult male roaches sterile. Although already being marketed in the United States, Hydroprene is still not available for use in Canada.

Like the upstairs neighbor who is suddenly invaded when the apartment below is sprayed, we may be in for a massive trans- border infestation of American roaches fleeing this new hormonal spray.

It may already be happening. Prof. Tobe tells of a hitherto absent southern species called the Carolina Cockroach which has recently been sighted in Toronto.

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