Bed Bug Update: The Bugs Aren’t the Only Threat

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Adult bed bug. (Credit: Dr. Harold Harlan, Armed Forces Pest Management Board Image Library)

Two weeks ago while on an assignment, I spent a couple of awkward nights in a budget hotel. The accommodations weren’t the problem—they were plenty comfortable and clean. Rather, my worries that I might pick up bed bugs and bring them home with me kept me on edge. The mattresses and upholstery all seemed insect-free; even so, I kept my clothes packed, wrapped everything in garbage bags and set my suitcase in the bathtub overnight, just to be sure.

Chalk up my actions as neurotic overkill; I don’t disagree. The contortions I put myself through were at least short-lived. Unfortunately, people who have to live with bed bugs for a long time may be possessed by a desperate yearning to be rid of them. And desperate people do desperate, dangerous things.

The pestilent return of bed bugs throughout the U.S. (which I’ve previously discussed here and here) shows no sign of ebbing, and efficient measures for stemming their spread are not at hand. At the EPA’s Second National Bed Bug Summit held this past February, experts in public health and entomology reviewed the state of the pest control technology and the mixed results of various efforts to eliminate the bugs in different cities.

Their conclusions were mostly bleak, especially for anyone praying for an easy chemical solution. Today’s bed bugs are highly resistant to most pesticides, including ones such as DDT that worked well decades ago. Different populations of the insects have different resistance profiles, so compounds that work against bugs at one location won’t necessarily work elsewhere, even nearby. And in any case, because bed bugs can now evolve significant resistance to pesticides so rapidly, nothing stays poisonous to them for long. What seems to work best as a general prescription is ongoing scrutiny and meticulous cleaning of mattresses, clothing and other hiding places for the insects—almost exactly the opposite of the one-time, no-fuss approach most of us would prefer.

William G. Schulz has written an informative piece for Chemical & Engineering News that well summarizes the situation. In particular, he offers useful detail on the few chemical pesticides that do still seem effective, including a new one to the market, chlorfenapyr, and an older one, propoxur, that was pulled a few years ago because of unanswered safety concerns.

Propoxur was removed from the market beginning in 2007, when EPA demanded safety and efficacy data that producers determined were too costly to develop. Now, only existing stocks of propoxur—rapidly dwindling—are available for use, and only by professional exterminators.

Ohio and 18 other states first requested EPA’s permission for emergency indoor use of propoxur in October 2009. Ohio officials hoped to open up new supply lines and treatment modes for products with the active ingredient, allowing them to tackle resilient infestations in places such as housing facilities for the elderly, homeless shelters, and public housing.

[EPA Administrator Lisa P.] Jackson denied Ohio’s request, writing that “propoxur, along with other members of its chemical class, is known to cause nervous system effects. The Agency’s health review for its use on bedbugs suggests that children entering and using rooms that have been treated may be at risk of experiencing nervous system effects.” She went on to note that the agency is pursuing many activities regarding bedbugs, including meetings with “experts and stakeholders nationwide to determine what other pesticides may be effective for bedbug control.”

Elected officials, the chemical industry and others are, as might be anticipated, upset about the continued ban.

[Ohio General Assemblyman Dale Mallory of Cincinnati] and others have vowed to fight EPA and Jackson over the use of propoxur. He says he is introducing legislation in the Ohio General Assembly in that regard.

A member of Ohio’s congressional delegation, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R), also plans to take up the matter. “We intend to hold EPA’s feet to the fire,” a spokesman for Schmidt says.

“I want to make sure that EPA regulations—particularly those affecting the eradication of bedbugs—are based on science and are not doing more harm than good,” Schmidt says. “As long as propoxur is applied by a certified, licensed applicator, the risk is minimal compared with the harm the public is inflicting on themselves with less than productive mitigation methods.”

Indeed, Jones and others say EPA has set the safety bar so high for propoxur and other insecticides that it would be difficult to get approval for any existing chemical, let alone new chemistries. EPA demands such a high safety factor, Jones says, “that nothing is going to pass. It’s extremely harsh.”

Sympathetic as I am to the plight of the infested, my opinion has been that relaxing environmental safety standards could be reckless. Bed bugs are, after all, a terrible nuisance but they don’t spread disease. Yet Schulz’s article has given me reasons to reconsider:

Meanwhile, people afflicted with bedbugs increasingly turn to extreme measures to eradicate the pests. Bob Rosenberg, senior vice president of the National Pest Management Association, says members of his association report incidents of people buying powerful agricultural chemicals and then spreading them around living areas or pouring them on mattresses to the point of saturation.

Strickland cited one such incident in his letters to Jackson. A desperate home owner, he wrote, hired an unlicensed exterminator to treat the property for bedbugs. “The applicator sprayed the interior of the duplex to the point of saturation with a product called malathion. The tenants, including one small child, were treated for chemical exposure at a local hospital.”

On its website, EPA lists “products that we don’t want people to use ever,” Miller of Virginia Tech says. An example is pyrethroid-based total-release aerosols—also known as bug bombs. People with infestations will set up 30 bug bombs and leave the oven pilot light on, resulting in explosions and fires, she says. What’s more, bug bombs mostly just cause bedbugs to scatter.

“EPA doesn’t understand the level of pesticide misuse,” Jones says. “People are using lawn care products indoors. They are exposing themselves to more pesticides than need be.”

“They’re just using their own concoctions,” Mallory says of those who cannot afford professional exterminators. He cites cases where people have sprayed rubbing alcohol, which is flammable and has resulted in house fires, to kill the bugs.

That’s the toll of desperation, of people driven to reckless acts out of a need for relief. Those acts may eventually be far greater risks to people’s health than the bed bugs are—but it’s a tradeoff that many won’t recognize or don’t think they’ll regret. It’s difficult to quantify the toll of these rash remedies but it’s possible that stacking them up against the more calculable risk of prudently using compounds such as propoxur might represent the best strategy for preserving the public’s welfare in the long run.

That said, I haven’t firmly changed my opinion, either. I’m leery of being stampeded by scary stories that might benefit the pesticide industry unduly. Still, such anecdotes highlight that although bed bugs might not be a serious threat to human health, an unstopped epidemic of bed bugs and its consequences can be.

Further readings:

For an authoritative source of general information on these pests, you cannot do better than the EPA’s own Bed Bug Information page (www.epa.gov/bedbugs/). Meanwhile, its Second National Bed Bug Summit page offers PDAs of the presentations from that meeting which address many specific topics, including non-chemical interventions.)

If your loathing for bed bugs is tempered by a fascination for their beauty as entomological wonders (that’s okay, I’m not judging you… freak), go enjoy a gallery of Alexander Wild’s always splendid photography of the little vampires. Alex also blogs at Myrmecos; if you love insects and photography and yet aren’t already following his work, then start now.

P.S. Readers may notice that I’ve spelled the name of the insects as “bed bug” here rather than as one word as in my earlier posts. Standards on this seem to differ, but most of the scientific sources seem to favor the two-word spelling, so I’m going along with that hereafter.

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