Retailers prepare for rush on insect repellents driven by Zika fears
It could be a big year for bug spray sales.
Retailers are stocking up on insect repellent and manufacturers are ramping up production, anticipating higher demand as consumers look to protect themselves from the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
Despite a rising number of cases in southern states, the threat of an outbreak is low in Pennsylvania, where there have been only 18 reported cases out of 503 nationwide as of May 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, local retailers say interest in insect repellents and bug zappers has been growing as worried customers get ready for summer backyard barbecues or vacations to places where Zika is a concern.
“We have loaded up on some additional bug sprays because we're anticipating additional interest and concern,” said Doug Satterfield, owner of Rollier's Hardware in Mt. Lebanon. “We've increased our inventories 25 percent for what we feel is going to be a strong summer season.”
The effects of the virus on adults include fever, rash and joint pain, according to the CDC. But during pregnancy, it can cause a serious birth defect called microcephaly, in which a baby's head is smaller than expected.
Alarm over the outbreak in Puerto Rico — where 671 cases have been reported — compelled Major League Baseball to cancel a series there at the end of May between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins.
That brought heightened attention to the issue for many Western Pennsylvania residents. Additionally, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's office last Thursday announced that a “Zika virus response plan” had been developed by the Department of Health. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday approved more than $1 billion in new funding to help fight the spread of the Zika virus.
Zika fears haven't yet sparked a run on repellent locally, but shoppers have been inquiring about products to protect themselves, said Dustin Dalpiaz, assistant store manager at a Lowe's store in Munhall.
“People are just trying to get information,” Dalpiaz said.
Wisconsin-based S.C. Johnson, the maker of Off brand bug spray, said it had tripled production at its largest domestic manufacturing facility and was reaching out to suppliers to ensure it had enough DEET, the most common active ingredient in insect repellents. Demand so far in the United States had increased 50 percent from the same period a year ago, said Kelly Semrau, senior vice president, global corporate affairs, communication and sustainability.
Lititz, Pa.-based Woodstream Corp., a manufacturer of pest control products, said sales of its Mosquito Magnet have increased 18 percent at stores in the Southeast, where the Zika outbreak has been more pronounced, said Robert Scott, global category development manager at the company.
The Mosquito Magnet is a propane-powered trap that emits carbon dioxide, which attracts the blood-sucking insects, luring them close and vacuuming them into a net. Mosquito populations are already becoming a problem along the southern coasts because of the warm winter caused by El Nino, Scott said. And the Zika fears have enhanced consumer interest in the product.
“We have noticed that, with our web traffic around the time Zika started to pick up, we had a large increase in inquiries online,” Scott said.
Bruce Tecza, owner of Premier Pest Control in Polish Hill, said he's received a few inquiries about treating properties for mosquitoes but said the cold spring hasn't put it top of mind for many customers. Plus, he said there are more effective ways of guarding against the insects this summer than spraying your yard.
Spill out standing water from buckets, bowls and bird baths, he said, and clean up the yard.
“Anybody in the city that's getting mosquito service is throwing their money in the garbage,” Tecza said.
Plus, the risk to Pennsylvania residents for contracting Zika are low. The type of mosquitoes that carry the virus are sometimes found in the state, but Zika infections here have been far less prevalent than in southern states like Florida, where five times as many cases have been reported, said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at UPMC. Still, there are other insect-borne viruses to be concerned about in Western Pennsylvania, he said.
“It's not just the risk of Zika,” he said. “We do get cases of West Nile and, hopefully, some of the steps people take to prevent Zika will have ripple effects on West Nile.”
Karen Pfeil, 61, of Mt. Lebanon said she was not concerned about the threat of Zika to her health, but worried for her adult-aged children if they planned soon to have kids of their own.
“I'm really concerned about people who are planning on starting a family,” she said as she browsed the plant selection at Rollier's.
Julie Arnheim, 45, of Squirrel Hill was more concerned about getting Lyme disease than Zika. She was planning a weekend fly-fishing trip and stopped into Rollier's looking for a chemical-free bug spray.
“Zika is not a good thing,” she said. “But it's not here (in Western Pennsylvania) right now.”
Chris Fleisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or email@example.com.