U.S. Grapples with Bedbugs, Misuse of Pesticides, As Non-Toxic Alternatives Are Not Widely Discussed


(Beyond Pesticides, September 1, 2010)

A resurgence of bedbugs across the U.S. has homeowners and apartment dwellers taking desperate measures to eradicate the tenacious bloodsuckers, with some relying on dangerous outdoor pesticides and fly-by-night exterminators. However, these measures pose more dangers than any perceived short-term benefit, as non-toxic alternatives are not widely discussed.

Bed bugs can be effectively controlled without the use of dangerous chemical pesticides. Heat treating infected spaces or items such as furniture and laundering linens in hot water will kill bed bugs. Habitat modification, such as sealing cracks, and removing clutter, can prevent an infestation from occurring.

Some steps you can take to treat for bed bugs include:

  • Eliminate clutter
    —clutter provides places for bed bugs to hide! Getting rid of as much clutter as possible will help you locate and get rid of infestations.
  • Caulk and Seal Crevices to prevent bed bugs from entering your home.
  • Encase mattresses and box springs
    —make sure the encasement has been tested for bed bugs and will not rip and does not contain synthetic pesticides impregnated in the material. If left on, it will eventually kill all bed bugs inside, and will make finding bed bugs on the surface much easier.
  • Laundering Fabrics and Clothing
    — run clothing through 30 minutes or a full cycle at the hottest setting the fabric will allow. Dry clean only clothes can simply be put into the dryer. If the fabric is too delicate for the hottest temperature, place it on a lower heat setting and let it run for the full cycle. Be sure to use a different bag for infested clothing and clean clothing, or, better yet, wash the bag with the clothing! Seal non-essential clothing in a plastic bag for the duration of treatment.
  • Vacuuming
    —this will only remove visible bed bugs, but is important to get rid of dead bed bugs and their frass. Use a stiff brush to dislodge eggs in cracks and crevices and use a vacuum attachment that does not have bristles to get into the corners. Be sure to discard the bag immediately after vacuuming, or vacuum up a desiccating dust or some corn starch to prevent bed bugs from spreading.
  • Steam Treatment
    —if applied properly, steam treatment will kill all stages of bedbugs. Move the nozzle over the bed bugs at a rate of 20 seconds per linear foot, and wrap a piece of fabric over the upholstery nozzle to reduce water pressure to make sure bed bugs don’t blow away. Many pest control companies have this as an option but due to the amount of time it takes, don’t provide it, so make sure you ask if this is available and request that it’s used.
  • Heat Treatment
    —companies can use fans and a heat source to heat an area (either a whole room or a smaller container) to 120 degrees F. Ambient heat can provide complete control of bed bugs if all areas of infestation reach 120 degrees F.

The bedbug problem has worsened and spread to more states across the U.S. This prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue a warning this month against the indoor use of chemicals meant for the outside. The agency also warned of an increase in pest control companies and others making “unrealistic promises of effectiveness or low cost.” EPA also cautions against the use of a product or pest control operators that treat homes with products that are not named to control bed bugs
on the product label. In a joint statement on bed bug control, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and EPA highlight emerging public health issues associated with bed bugs in communities throughout the U.S. The statement provides background information on the recent rise in bed bug problems, discusses the public health implications of bed bug infestations, and stresses the importance of controlling them with an integrated approach. It also explains the role of government agencies at the local, state, tribal, and federal levels in better understanding the recent resurgence of bed bugs and developing better ways to control them.

Bedbugs, infesting U.S. households on a scale unseen in more than a half-century, have become largely resistant to commonly used pesticides like pyrethroids. As a result, some homeowners and exterminators are turning to more hazardous chemicals that can harm the central nervous system, irritate the skin and eyes or even cause cancer.

Ohio authorities, struggling against widespread infestations in Cincinnati, Columbus, Dayton and other cities, petitioned EPA last fall to approve the indoor use of the pesticide propoxur, which the agency considers a probable carcinogen and banned for in-home use in 2007, due to concerns posed to children. About 25 other states are supporting Ohio’s request for an emergency exemption. In comments to the agency objecting the petition for propoxur, Beyond Pesticides and other environmental and public health advocates urged the agency to reject the request, citing the serious public health threat associated with the chemical, as well as the availability of alternatives. EPA rejected Ohio’s petition in June.

In the meantime, authorities around the country have blamed house fires on people misusing all sorts of highly flammable garden and lawn chemicals to fight bedbugs. Experts also warn that some hardware products such as bug bombs and other pesticide products claim to be lethal, but merely cause the bugs to scatter out of sight and hide in cracks in walls and floors. Despite these warnings, many have resorted to dangerous practices in an effort to rid bedbugs. A pest control company in Newark, N.J., was accused in July of applying chemicals not approved for indoor use throughout 70 homes and apartments units, even spraying mattresses and children’s toys. In Cincinnati, an unlicensed applicator saturated an apartment complex in June with an agricultural pesticide typically used on golf courses. Seven tenants got sick and were treated at the hospital. The property was quarantined, and all tenants were forced to move. Authorities are pursuing criminal charges.

Though propoxur is still used in pet collars, it is banned for use in homes because of the risk of nausea, dizziness and blurred vision in children. Steven Bradbury, director of the EPA’s pesticide program, said the problem is that children crawl on the floor and put their fingers in their mouths. Critics in the pest control industry say that the federal government is overreacting in its precautions aimed to protect children from hazardous pesticides. Many in industry say other in-home pesticides aren’t as lethal as propoxur, requiring several treatments that can push extermination costs to $500 or $1,500, depending on the size of a home. Marion Ehrich, PhD, a toxicologist at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, said the EPA is showing appropriate caution. She said other scientists who have studied the bedbug problem are not eager to see propoxur released in homes.

“Propoxur is not a silver bullet, and given time, bedbugs would likely become resistant to it, too,” said Lyn Garling, an entomologist at Penn State University.

Experts say it is going to take a comprehensive public health campaign — public-service announcements, travel tips and perhaps even taxpayer-funded extermination programs for public housing — to reduce the bedbug problem. People can get bedbugs by visiting infested homes or hotels, where the vermin hide in mattresses, pillows and curtains. The bugs are stealth hitchhikers that climb onto bags, clothing and luggage.