Health concerns emerge nationwide as people take on bed bug treatment themselves
Dealing with indoor insect pests is frustrating enough. Dealing with bed bugs raises the anxiety to a whole new level. Reports across the nation include homeowners dousing pesticide products on their body and hair, or simply drenching their bed with pesticides before sleeping in it. While that kind of reaction is certainly extreme, it illustrates the great concern people have with the persistence of bed bugs. As a result, both federal and state officials are alerting the public of an emerging concern regarding misuse of pesticides to treat bed bug infestations.
“The resurgence of bed bugs in the US and Oregon within this decade appears real,” says Jim LaBonte, entomologist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “The causes are not known, but possible reasons include greatly increased travel to and from other countries, the economic downturn– bed bugs flourish in the crowded living conditions that often result– development of pesticide resistance, and lack of awareness of basic tactics to avoid bed bug infestations.”
Although bed bug bites can be extremely irritating, the pest is not known to carry or spread any human diseases. Consequently, they are not a threat to human health. What is a threat is exposure to some of the tools used to treat bed bugs if those tools are used improperly. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
(ATSDR) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have recently issued a health advisory
after seeing a trend develop as reported by the Corvallis-based National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC)
. The advisory notes that “NPIC reported 169 calls to their hotline [nationally] from January 2006 to December 2010 of residents, homeowners, or pesticide applicators spraying pesticides indoors to treat bed bugs. These cases involved pesticides that were misapplied, not intended for indoor use, or legally banned from use. Of those, 129 resulted in mild or serious health effects (including one death) for persons living in affected residences.”
LaBonte has received his share of calls from concerned Oregonians, especially this past year.
“Most people are worried about disease and I reassure them that bed bugs are not disease carriers. If they have not already done so, I recommend that they submit specimens to ODA or another agency to confirm they indeed have bed bugs. Several times, people thought they had infestations but they had found other insects instead.”
Severe infestations can affect a person’s mental well being, along with the unfair social stigma associated with an infestation. Although crowded and cluttered living situations lend themselves to bed bug problems, an infestation is not an indicator of poor housekeeping or poor personal hygiene. Nevertheless, some people choose not to say anything about a potential bed bug problem and prefer to handle the matter themselves. The best course of action is to call in the professionals.
“We always encourage individuals to contact pest control companies, this is not a pest that is effectively controlled by homeowners,” says Paul Khokhar, ODA pesticide
Bed bugs live where people live. They can be found on items that humans come in physical contact with– mattresses, carpets, chairs, and tables. The only way to control the pests is to treat those areas. Because people come in contact with such items, exposure to pesticides may be a large risk. If residents decide to take charge of the control efforts, ODA wants to make sure people use pesticides correctly and according to the label. It should be clear by the product’s label that it is effective against bed bugs.
“We are hearing about misuse of pesticides, primarily using pesticides not labeled for indoor use,” says Khokhar. “These products are labeled for outdoor use for a reason, they are not to come in contact with humans. We also see cases where people are using an amount of the product way above the labeled rate. That can lead to exposures and health problems.”
Residents need to remember that control of bed bugs is not a quick process. Perhaps a pesticide application can knock down the insect population quickly, but it won’t get rid of all of the bugs. That’s why using professionals that have experience in dealing with bed bugs is the preferred option.
“It’s always a good idea to call a few companies,” says Khokhar. “They don’t charge to come out and do a site visit. They will look at your situation and give you some options. You may choose something a little less toxic. They may have some products that will be a little more agreeable for you and your family.”
Some companies are much more knowledgeable about bed bug treatment than others. ATSDR warns consumers to be aware of recent cases where licensed and unlicensed pest control applicators illegally sprayed outdoor pesticides indoors to control bed bugs.
Like many other insect pests, bed bugs can hitch a ride with travelers or with buyers of used household items. There are several ways to minimize the possibility of bringing bed bugs back home with you.
“If you travel a lot, ask lodging staff if they have a history of bed bug problems,” says Khokhar. “Put suitcases on the metal rack. Bed bugs can’t crawl up the metal legs. Be careful purchasing used mattresses and furniture. Inspect those items thoroughly before bringing them into your home.”
Residents can also practice their own integrated pest management once bed bugs are discovered. Vacuuming areas thoroughly can remove all sorts of unwanted insects, bed bugs included. Anything vacuumed should be bagged and discarded. A visual inspection of the sleeping area, including a check of the mattress, box spring, bed frame, and bedding, may help prevent problems before they get too overwhelming.
Oregon’s bed bug problems seem to be concentrated in the Portland metro area. But the rest of the state is not immune from the blood sucking pest. Wherever bed bugs are found, caution is a key if residents decide to treat the matter themselves.
For more information about bed bugs and pesticide use, contact NPIC
Media contact for this story: Paul Khokhar at (503) 986-4653.PDF versionAudio version