Tim McCoy/AP
This photo provided by the Virginia Tech Department of Entomology, taken in 2008, shows
mother and child bed bugs.

Largest Bedbug Outbreak Since WWII Forces EPA to Hold Bedbug Summit

April 16, 2009 07:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
Many pesticides effective at killing bedbugs, such as DDT, are banned in the United States. Will the EPA approve emergency pesticides to quash the rise in bedbug outbreaks?

EPA’s Bedbug Summit to Discuss Methods for Extermination

Over the past few years, public health officials, doctors and pest control experts have seen a significant increase in complaints about bedbugs, a pest that was once nearly eliminated from the United States.

In recent years, the banning of pesticides that once killed bedbugs and other household pests, along with increased international travel, have brought the nighttime critters back, along with their bites. In Houston, residents of a men’s homeless shelter have gone to the local emergency room looking for relief from the bites, and exterminators that rarely saw bedbug infestations in the past are getting as many as three calls a day.

The complaints are so rampant that the EPA is holding its first ever bedbug summit this week in Arlington, Va., to discuss ideas for prevention, control and management of the pests.

Some at the summit will be looking to the EPA to approve new pesticides for this “emergency” situation, or to approve certain pesticides used by farmers outdoors for household use, for temporary relief from the problem. Others will push for funding from the EPA to explore alternative methods for getting rid of bedbugs, such as freezing, heating, or steaming them away.

Background: Why are bedbugs so hard to get rid of?

Adult bedbugs are about the size of an appleseed. They range in color from white to brown or orange. They typically hide in cracks and crevices in houses, such as in the folds of a mattress, in loose wallpaper, or hidden away in other pieces of furniture. They are difficult to find because their bodies are nearly flat, although from above they appear oval-shaped.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, keeping your furniture away from walls and your bedding from coming into contact with the floor may help prevent bedbug infestation. If you think you may have come into contact with bedbugs during your travels, thoroughly wash all of your clothing and scrub out any luggage with a stiff brush, or leave all of your travel belongings in the hot sun for a few hours.

Bites from a bedbug resemble those from a mosquito, and may itch because the bug injects a small amount of numbing saliva into the host while feeding, so that the person does not feel the bite. According to a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Heath Services, infestation of bedbugs isn’t tracked by health departments because the insects are not known to spread disease.

One myth about bedbugs is that their infestation is the result of an unclean home; bedbugs feed only on blood, so the cleanliness of a home has little to do with infestation, a scientist with the National Pest Management Association told The Houston Chronicle.

Although harsh pesticides have been banned in the United States, other countries continue to use them, and now some bedbugs have become resistant to pesticides such as DDT. Also, adult bedbugs can live for up to a year without eating.

Reference: What is DDT? Why was it banned?

DDT, or Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane, is a pesticide that was first created in a laboratory in 1873. In the late 1930s Dr. Paul Mueller realized DDT could be used to kill insects. During WWII it was used as a pesticide. Later it was used to control pests in crops and to prevent the spread of malaria by killing carriers like mosquitoes.

The United States applied nearly 700,000 tons of DDT during its heyday, but so much application of the chemical led to increased resistance by pests, and a growing concern about the environmental and health effects of the chemical. On Dec. 31, 1972, the general use of DDT became illegal.

Since the ban of DDT, the levels of contamination of the chemical have dropped. Studies of the coastal waters in the United States have found that levels of DDT have decreased significantly.

However, the ban of DDT has not stopped contamination completely. Although the levels of DDT in the Arctic seem to have declined consistently, levels of DDT found in dead Antarctic penguins are similar to those levels detected in the 1970s. The thought is that continued use of the chemical by other countries, as well as DDT frozen in glaciers that are now melting and releasing the chemical, are contributing to the continued contamination.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines