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

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

  1. I’m going on a cruise this summer, and I’m quite concerned about bed bugs. I plan on doing similar measures, keeping my clothes packed and keeping my suitcases in the bathroom. I’ve been considering tossing my luggage and clothes out before coming home.

    So, I’m going to take strong measures in bringing stuff back home that could have bed bugs. I’m concerned with what I can do to keep them off me. Does showering clean the body of bed bugs?

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    • John Rennie says:

      I’m not an expert, so beware, but my impression is that bed bugs generally don’t hang out on the body after feeding: they skitter off to hide and breed. Normal showering ought to get them out of your hair just fine. And washing and drying your clothes at a high temperature should also kill or eliminate most there, too. I suspect that unless you are staying someplace that turns out to be lousy with bed bugs (if I can mix my insect rhetoric), which you would probably recognize, you’re not likely to pick up too many hitchhikers, especially given your other precautions.

      But please, readers, if any of you can correct these suggestions, please do. Don’t take my word for any of this; check with the EPA and other authorities.

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  2. Excellent overview of the situation and the summit. One critical consideration not addressed is the frequency with which dwellings are treated for the wrong reason. Quite often, folks misconstrue innocuous insects and even lint to be bed bugs. Similarly, it is far too common for residents to conclude (incorrectly) that the finding of stains on the mattress, the behavior of ‘detection dogs’ , or the appearance of bite-like skin lesions are sufficient to proclaim a dwelling infested by bed bugs. Such a conclusion should be based upon the visual confirmation of a bona fide bed bug. I evaluated countless samples of presumed bed bugs (and digital images) when I was at Harvard, and now provide the same service through IdentifyUS LLC. The vast majority of presumed bed bugs are not. Sometimes, these are other kinds of biting arthropods (that require different strategies to abate), but mostly they are objects and creatures that do not justify pesticidal intervention. Other helpful information and guidance on reducing travel risks, on school policy, and on yet other management issues can be found on my website.

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    • John Rennie says:

      Excellent point, Richard, thank you. It’s the core problem with hysteria (or even borderline hysteria): once it gets going, it can feed on almost anything. Maybe it’s worth putting together some kind of pictorial guide about “What Isn’t a Bed Bug” to help people cool down their overheating imaginations?

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      • John,
        Good point. Many folks simply try to compare their specimen to images on the web. The problems with that strategy are that many such images are mislabeled, and one often doesn’t have a pristine bug at hand. Many of the creatures sent to me are impressively mangled (smashed, dismembered, etc), and yet others are close relatives that require a microscope and a bit of expertise to discriminate from bed bugs. That is the basis for my service. I’m often told that my rapid responses have saved folks a immense sum that might otherwise have been spent on unnecessary treatments… and incredibly amounts of angst.

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  3. Khalil A. says:

    I’ve had to live with bed bugs for some time and I’m now paranoid about them. You just need to have a look at the wikipedia entry on “bed bugs” to know that I’m not the out on out here though. Nor are you.

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  4. Pam Adams says:

    I was in Boulder, Colorado in November 2010. There was an article in the local paper about the problem of bed bugs. After a summary of the large expensive heat treatment units that some lucky people may be able to get for their homes now, there was a discussion of the development and proliferation of smaller heat treatment units that hotels can use for individual rooms. Right now, if lodgers fear that they have bed bugs, they take a hot shower, and the room and all their possessions are heat treated. The heat draws out the bugs, looking for a yummy hot blood meal and the increasing heat (up to at least 113 degrees for at least 1 hour) kills them.
    Because of social stigma hotels are trying to get a solution in place while denying they have the problem, this is slowing down implementation of solutions. The stigma is unwarranted. Just as anyone can pick up a flea, anyone or anyplace could get bed bugs. Some of the nicest hotels and people have gotten them. I hope there will be more open discussion of this problem, so that solutions can more quickly be put in place.
    Since beg bugs are here to stay, I think this quick, safe and environmentally friendly course of action will become a standard treatment of rooms before and/or after patrons’ visits.
    Heat and other treatments are mentioned on the EPA site.

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  5. Adela says:

    Diatomaceous earth. Just find ways to make sure they get coated in it either while hiding or traveling.

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  6. Ruth says:

    My family and I use SleepTite Bed Bug Spray. After coming home from a trip with extra companions, we didnt want to resort to toxic harmful chemicals. We have children and pets and this spray is effective causing complete immobilization and rapid degradation of the bed bug. Its safe and so simple to use, couple of sprays, let air dry for 10 min and it’s such peace of mind.

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  7. Dear John, thank you for this excellent article that is a pleasure to read.

    THE solution is a smart individual combination of instruments, techniques and methods – just like good music. Here is another instrument for the bed-bug-parrying-orchestra, that you might like, the .
    This multi purpose sheet that you lay down wherever you want to rest helps personal protection, paranoia prevention, and is good for long-lasting insect-repellent. The repellent function can last up to 50-100 washes if carefully handled. ‘The patented process and material are two innovations on the world market: During the production process an active substance that repels arthropods is incorporated as a fibre copolymer into the fabric of the sheet. The substance thereby remains embedded in the material, guaranteeing a lasting effect and protection of the environment.’ ( http://www.bedbugs-free.com , from the product information )

    Sincerely, epha

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  8. Laurel says:

    I have to wonder why no one has come up with Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth as a solution. Go to http://www.gardenharvestsupply.com to read up on it or just Google it. I first used it last year. I applied it to my lawn and to my dogs in order to control fleas and ticks. I live in rural, OK. I was skeptical but had tried many other solutions and wanted something safe. To my amazement, I did not see a flea or tick all season long!

    It’s safe, it’s cheap and it works. Just sprinkle it around the base boards and in the dark places that bedbugs like to hide. Wash all of your bedding in HOT water, sprinkle it on the mattress, put on a mattress pad or cover and consider yourself protected! It’s a very fine powder, so it will seep into the fabric and even when you’ve vacuumed along the baseboards, what has sunk into the carpet or under the baseboards will continue to protect you.

    Just try it!

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  9. @eva

    It’s well known that any repellent works for bedbugs until they are not hungry enough to don’t care about it.
    In many places of Africa beds are protected from mosquitoes attacks using bednets treated with repellent pyrethroids. They stop mosquitoes, but don’t work for bedbugs.
    I visited the site and read texts and FAQs. Considering you claim yourself an entomologist, I hope you were not involved in writing them, because they contain a lot of scientific mistakes and inaccuracies.

    i.e.:
    “How to detect an infestation: By the smell (sickly-sweet)”

    All bedbugs experst in the world say that “bedbug smell” is NOT an affordable infestation’s sign. You can stay in a room infested by hundreds of bedbugs without perceiving it.
    In last three years I’ve dealed with more than 300 bedbug cases, and I perceived their smell in a infested room just two times (and they were both “godzilla size” cases).

    i.e. 2

    “Place a few ticks, bedbugs, ants, flies or mosquitoes on the sheet and keep them there for a few minutes, for example using a glass. Afterwards observe their behaviour for a while.
    You will easily be able to see whether there is any resistance to the repellent, for example on the part of bedbugs.”

    It does not have a sense. Any insect, once put on a wide white surface will try to reach a secure harbourage (or to fly off) ASAP. So, what should I observe?
    Wth is a “resistance to the repellent”? Never heard about it…

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  10. Eva Scholl says:

    Dear Dr. Casini,

    thank you for your critical comments.

    i.e.1
    There are more important signs than smell, yes. This needs to be addressed more clearly.
    ——————————————–
    Some of the wording will of course make experts´s footnails crinkle. The language is British English, and the website was written for laymen. If you find real mistakes, please let me know, either here, or to my e-mail-adress.

    THE management of bed bugs requires smart combination of many means. Sheet and material are both extremely helpful for a growing number of people, purposes and targets.

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  11. Pingback: Hazards of Bed Bugs—and of Getting Rid of Them | Retort

  12. Mike Gentile says:

    DDT works. There was one study that showed that maybe some bed bugs were imuned to it. I doubt if the averge bed bug can still take a dose of DDT. Remember this problem starting showing up after DDT was removed from the market. What does that tell you?

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    • John Rennie says:

      You’re mistaken. Many studies showed that bed bugs, like many other insects, developed resistance to DDT when it was in widespread use, which is one reason DDT stopped being the pesticide of choice for exterminators to use against bed bugs well before the ban was instituted. Bed bugs today are generally more vulnerable to DDT than they were when the ban was introduced (because they haven’t been exposed to it in some time) but in recent tests, they rapidly start showing strong resistance again within a very few generations.

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  13. John,
    You’re right that in the absence of exposure, the prevalence or intensity of resistance begins to wane. You’re also correct that the prevalence of resistance will skyrocket within a few (bug) generations resulting from renewed selection pressure once DDT is reapplied. Remember that there’s much cross-resistance between DDT and pyrethroids, that pyrethroids continue to be extensively applied, and that many bed bugs are quite resistant to many of the pyrethroids. Hence, resistance to DDT is likely to still be fairly profound. So, as much as DDT was a wonder product many decades ago, it has only tiny value today, and then mainly as a single-use emergency application (and even that wouldn’t be allowed in much of the world). So, resistance (to the notion that DDT’s days have passed) is futile.

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