The Concrete Jungle: How Urban Pests Impact Human Life
The boundaries separating modern humans from nature continue to blur as urban sprawl continues across woodlands, grasslands and wetlands. Rather than give up their homes, the insect occupants of these habitats are moving in alongside their new human neighbors. Many of the insects we share our homes and cities with are well known, including cockroaches, mites and mosquitoes, but we may be less familiar with the incredible impact these pests have on human life. From the air we breathe to the beds we sleep in, there are few aspects of life untouched by insects and arthropods, and it’s not always for the better.
Asthma and Allergic Reactions
Approximately 19.2 million adults and 5.5 million children in the United States have asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Children with asthma are often socioeconomically disadvantaged and live in urban areas, where exposure to indoor allergens, including cockroaches, dust mites and rodents, leads to higher morbidity rates. Recently, researchers have identified dust mites as the most commonly reported allergy among adolescents, while allergies to cockroaches and mice cause more frequent hospitalizations.
Dust mites and cockroaches can invade homes through the smallest of cracks and holes, leaving body parts and droppings that trigger allergic reactions in children and adults. Parents of children who have had asthma can find their children coughing and wheezing as a result of being exposed to these pests. Symptoms can be treated with medications, but pests will need to be managed to stop the problem at its source. Moreover, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of underprivileged groups affected by pest allergens, it’ll take a community approach to mitigate this issue.
Mosquitoes aren’t the only blood-feeding arthropods you have to worry about. Bed bugs, fleas, ticks, mites, lice and flies are all urban pests that feed on human blood. Many of these pests may seem like little more than a nuisance — only cats and dogs have to worry about fleas, right? However, their appetite for human flesh means that a bite could transmit a vector-borne disease. For example, fleas can transmit the plague after moving from a rodent to a human host. Far removed from medieval Europe, it’s hard to imagine encountering the bubonic plague in everyday life, but approximately seven human plague cases are reported in the United States every year.
Vector-borne diseases that are traditionally associated with rural transmissions, including malaria, Chagas disease and sleeping sickness, are increasingly popping up in urban environments. Cases of vector-borne diseases will only continue to grow as urbanization, globalization and the human population grows. Half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, with 2.5 billion more people on the way. Developing countries must contend with urban sprawl, overcrowding and poor infrastructure that not only affects the spread of vector-borne diseases but also hinders the detection and control of outbreaks. In developed countries like the United States, the pressure is on to create reliable surveillance and control strategies to predict and prevent epidemics like the 2017 Zika outbreak.
In addition to the significant harm urban pests can inflict on human health, there’s also the extensive damage they can inflict on homes, factories, hospitals and property. A prime example is the Pharaoh ant, a home invader that can neither sting nor bite. However, what this urban pest lacks in offensive capabilities, it more than makes up for with its destructive capabilities. Pharaoh ants are the most difficult household ant to control due to their ability to survive most household pest control treatments and their habit of nesting in inaccessible areas. Pharaoh ants have been known to penetrate the most secure of facilities, including recombinant DNA laboratories, so imagine the difficulties a family must endure when trying to exclude these six-legged invaders.
Once urban pests like Pharaoh ants, bed bugs and lice make themselves at home, they can be notoriously difficult to remove. For example, a bed bug infestation may result in a hotel losing money on replacement bedding and furniture, structural cleaning and insurance claims. While large businesses and hotel chains may be able to shrug off these costs, that’s simply not a reality for families dealing with a pest infestation. For poor families disproportionally affected by pests, paying hundreds of dollars to treat an infestation may not be an option.
Urban Pest Management
In order to protect people from the health and economic risks pests present, entomologists must consider all aspects of pest management. Integrated pest management (IPM) is a rational decision-making approach that relies on a combination of best practices, such as setting action thresholds and applying pesticides judiciously. This approach is ideal for use in cities, as it requires entomologists to consider the needs of the public and involve them in pest management. By surveying potential insect threats and encouraging the public to participate in vector prevention and control, entomologists can help mitigate and outright prevent potentially deadly outbreaks.
The University of Florida offers an online entomology and nematology master’s degree and graduate certificate, each with three specialization options, one of which is urban pest management. Courses like Biology and ID of Urban Pests, Principles of Pesticides and Principles of Urban Pest Management empower students with the knowledge needed to prevent and exclude pests in places where they’re most impactful on human health and wellness. Apply to one of our online entomology and nematology programs to learn how to offer your pest management expertise where it’s needed most.