July 19, 2006 - They're creepy, crawly and the last thing anyone wants to see when flipping on the kitchen light to fix a midnight snack.

Many people throughout Pima County are arising this summer in the wee hours of the night to find cockroaches have infiltrated the sanctity of their homes.

"I don't know what it's like on the other side of town but this is the worst summer I've seen," said Jared Spittle, an exterminator for 5-Star Termite and Pest Control covering the Northwest.

No one can say for certain what has caused an influx of pests like cockroaches during the summer months but many believe a disappointing rainy season is to blame. It began Oct. 1 and barely lived up to its name, producing the second longest dry spell on record in Southern Arizona. Ironically, the early onset of the monsoon has had an effect on the breeding and habitat patterns of these six-legged critters.

The summertime is traditionally the busiest period for pests like ants, scorpions and the American roach, which leaves the sewers in search of food and moisture. Aside from the ability to dole out a serious dose of the "willies," cockroaches can spread diseases such as salmonella, typhoid and streptococcus. Some studies even link infestations to asthmatic symptoms in children.

Extermination companies throughout the county have seen an increase in calls. Shelby Hawkins, president and CEO of 5-Star Termite and Pest Control estimates her company gets a couple of hundred calls a week, a number considerably higher than summers past.

Pima County Wastewater has also seen an increase in the amount of calls it receives to come out and investigate infected sewer lines leading into homes. The agency gets as many as 100 calls a week from neighborhoods ranging from South Tucson to the Foothills and even up through Catalina and Marana.

The increase in complaints has created a backlog of eight weeks for a crew to respond to a call.

To assist the high number of requests, wastewater management has added a second truck to deal primarily with call-ins. Each truck has one person who investigates manholes for roaches and sprays if necessary. The average truck, however, can only respond to roughly 20 calls a day and that's on a good day.

An invasion of roaches can also be traced back to wastewater management. As late as 2003, wastewater officials had a comprehensive plan that sprayed all the manholes in the county. A lack of department funding, however, forced the county to change its mode of operation from a proactive one to a reactive approach, responding only to complaint calls, said Mike Bunch, Deputy Director for Pima County's Wastewater Management. The inactivity allowed populations of American cockroaches - the only kind of roach that can survive in the sewers - to thrive.

Wastewater Management has since resolved its budget issues, which included two user fees hikes in the last two years, and had developed a new vector control program to combat the sewer dwellers. The average household in Pima County pays $13.61 per month in user fees to wastewater management.

In years past, the county spent up to $1 million annually on vector control for pesticides, equipment and manpower. The new two-year contract with Peoria Pest Control, which began in November, will cost the county $360,000 per year.

"We're still doing the reactive," said Bunch. "We really expect to see the complaints come down, they're going to come down. The public just has to bear with us for a little while because it just got started."

The county's new plan contracts Peoria Pest Control to spray every manhole in the county with a latex-based paint that contains less than one percent pesticide. The pesticide is acid-based and is highly effective in killing mass amounts of roaches, while having minimal to zero affect on humans.

Peoria Pest Control is one of the biggest exterminators in the state, providing the same service to municipalities such as Chandler, Lake Havasu, Phoenix and Scottsdale. Although Phoenix has bigger sewer systems, Tucson has the biggest utility system in the state, said Bunch.

Once the contract with Peoria expires in 2007, the county will continue to re-up in two-year increments. By then, the roach population should be well under control.

"The first time around we're going to wipe out a vast majority of them (roaches)," said Jeff Valunas, an exterminator with Peoria Pest Control. "But after the second or third time around, we'll have that residual build up and Tucson won't have any problem with roaches as long as we keep on top of it."

Valunas is the lone exterminator spraying the entire county. In November he started in the center of Tucson and began working his way out. In an average day he'll spray anywhere from 100 to 175 manholes.

Valunas is hopeful Peoria will send another team down to assist him with his efforts.

In the meantime, Pima County residents can do their part to limit potential infestations. Roaches often appear in bathrooms and kitchens because those are the two rooms in the house that supply moisture, food and habitat for roaches.

The first step is to eliminate ways in which roaches enter a house, says Carl "Bugman" Olson, associate curator and lecturer at the University of Arizona.

"People have to understand they've got to do health maintenance," said Olson.

Doors and windows should tightly fit. Most roaches and other pests simply walk right into houses through openings, said Olson refuting the popular myth that roaches enter through bathrooms.

"They're not coming up through your pipes," said Olson. The only times that roaches come up through pipes is when people let the p-traps in their drains run dry, typically while on vacation. Roaches cannot swim underwater so a full p-trap - the pipe that prevents noxious sewer gases from entering homes - is a safeguard against sewer-dwelling pests.

Another common entrance into the home for roaches is through paper bags and cardboard. These provide ideal places for roaches to lay their eggs in the material's porous walls.

Some female roaches mate just once but are pregnant for the remainder of their lives and can lay hundreds of eggs at a time. The American roach, the most common in Arizona, takes two years to mature.

Cockroaches are primarily nocturnal. Roach sightings during the day often mean a severe infestation as the insects fight for habitat, water and food resources.

Most exterminators disagree with Olson's notion that roaches don't come up through drains and recommend pouring a cup of bleach down sinks to ward off the insects.

The best preventative measure, however, is simply keeping a clean home, especially the bathrooms and kitchens.

"I always used to ask people 'How often do you clean your refrigerator top?'" said Olson. "Stick your hand up there and slide. Just think, with the grease that's up there, that's food to keep a nice colony of roaches going for a very long time."

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