Hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband. Bed bugs are biting everybody out there – in recent weeks invading the headquarters of CNN, Elle magazine and a popular movie theater in Times Square.
While worst in the Northeast and especially New York City, blood-sucking bed bugs are making a remarkably rapid resurgence worldwide.
Though not known to spread disease, the itchy welts from their bites and the general distress caused by knowing one is being feasted on while asleep prove a nightmare for many victims.
Eradication can take months and cost thousands of dollars. There’s also the stigma — many high-end New York residences, for instance, keep their bed bug infestations secret to avoid embarrassment.
But why are bed bugs back? Though they’ve been sucking humans’ blood since at least ancient Greece, bed bugs became virtually extinct in America following the invention of pesticide DDT.
There were almost no bed bugs in the United States between World War II and the mid-1990s.
Around when bed bugs started their resurgence, Congress passed a major pesticides law in 1996 and the Clinton EPA banned several classes of chemicals that had been effective bed bug killers.
The debate isn’t over long-banned DDT, since modern bed bugs have developed a tolerance for that chemical. But in the pre-1996 regime, experts say, bed bugs were “collateral damage” from broader and more aggressive use of now-banned pesticides like Malathion and Propoxur.
Now some health officials are clamoring to bring those chemicals back to help solve the bed bug “emergency.” Meanwhile, EPA bureaucrats have downplayed the idea and environmentalists are pushing hard against the effort, citing safety concerns.
The issue has led to a standoff between Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, and EPA chief Lisa Jackson, who shot down Strickland’s appeals over the issue in a tersely worded letter in June.
While the debate continues regarding the role of EPA regulations in the rapid spread of bed bugs, both sides agree the problem is dire.
The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a joint statement on Aug. 5 reflecting that urgency. “In recent years, public health agencies across the country have been overwhelmed by complaints about bed bugs,” the statement says.
As the statement notes, besides the health and psychological impacts of the blood suckers, the economic impact to victims can be severe. In many cases, victims discard most or all of their furniture and other belongings in a desperate push to rid themselves of the problem. There are extermination costs and expensive preventative measures like mattress encasements as well.
Compounding the spread of bed bugs are several factors other than EPA regulations, including the increased levels of travel and growing resistance in wild bed bug populations to the pesticides that are still allowed by the government.
According to research at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, academic headquarters for studying the six-legged beast, some strains of bed bugs can survive, zombie-like, for up to 16 days after being directly sprayed with currently used pesticides.
If you consider that in most instances insects are intended to die shortly after coming into brief contact with pesticide residue, that’s pretty dramatic.
Meanwhile, tests at the University of Kentucky show the EPA-banned pesticides are still deadly effective at bed bug mass murder.
Notably, pest controllers can still rid your house or apartment building of bed bugs. It’s just way more expensive and time consuming since they’re using nerf guns instead of nukes.
As with many issues, whether the more effective pesticides are safe depends on who you ask.
Bob Rosenberg of the National Pest Management Association, a trade association representing pest controllers, doesn’t have kids. But if he did, he told The Daily Caller, he “wouldn’t think twice” about having them applied to a residence they were living in.
Health officials in Ohio, the state most aggressively pursuing the EPA’s permission to start using the banned pesticides, agree.
Officials from Franklin County, Ohio told the EPA the move is necessary given how dire the situation. There, they have “infestations in schools, fire houses, apartment buildings and many other buildings,” a Jan. 15 letter from the county’s health director Paul Rosile said.
One of the arguments cited by Rosile and other proponents of reviving the effective pesticides is that desperate bed bug victims – who feel helpless as zombie bed bugs destroy their lives – are resorting to far less safe alternatives to hit back, do it yourself style.
“Many are resorting to other unsafe methods of treatment, including procuring farm, lawn care and garden chemicals to rid their home of the pests.”
Needless to say, heavy-duty agricultural pesticides were never intended to be sprayed at the base of one’s bed, and while certainly effective, they’re a rather perilous route to sleeping soundly.
That sounds pretty bad. But environmentalist groups say the pesticides that would be effective on bed bugs are dangerous, too.
For instance, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the most powerful member of Washington, D.C.’s green lobby, objected to Ohio’s push for better bed bug sprays in a Jan. 20 letter to the EPA.
Propoxur – the pesticide Ohio was hoping to use — “is a known human carcinogen,” NRDC wrote, and “causes a variety of poisoning symptoms, many of which can mimic common illnesses; these include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, wheezing, sweating and tearing eyes. More severe poisoning can cause muscle twitching, drooling, seizures, respiratory paralysis and death.”
In the meantime, the EPA, which banned the pesticides in the first place, appears to be dead set against bringing them back.
Facing pointed questions on the issue at the EPA’s first-ever national bed bug summit in April 2009, key EPA bureaucrat Lois Rossi said those pesticides “weren’t just pulled off the shelf for no reason.”
Since then, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson gave Ohio Gov. Strickland a similarly cool reception to the idea.
“In particular, the requested use presents an unacceptable risk to children who might be exposed to propoxur in and around rooms treated for bed bugs,” Jackson said in a June 2 letter to Strickland.
Since then, the EPA has sent signals it is still reviewing the request. But for many in the bed bug trenches, the writing is clearly on the wall.
The EPA did not return a request for comment.