Itchy Bites: The Least of the Bed Bug Epidemic’s Threats

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bed-bug: cimex lectularius on human

The bed bug — the reviled, bloodsucking ectoparasite (Cimex lectularius) that feeds silently on human beings during the night — has made a thunderous comeback in the U.S., everywhere from New York City to Cincinnati to Denver.

Bed bugs are so pervasive in New York City that they have shown up in Times Square movie theaters, a Hollister store in the upscale SoHo neighborhood and even the iconic Fifth Ave. New York Public Library, famous for its lion statues.

In fact, a city help line reported 34,000 bed bug–related phone calls last year. But the city that’s no longer sleeping isn’t alone: the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement to address the national problem.

Now, with reports throughout the country of desperate bed bug sufferers dousing their homes in a variety of toxic agricultural pesticides — bed bugs having developed resistance to most insecticides that replaced DDT, which was banned in 1972 — the EPA has issued a more general warning about the health consequences of do-it-yourself pest control.

Recently, the Health Department in Ohio, the only state with three cities in Terminix’s recent ranking of most infested cities, petitioned the EPA to approve the use of propoxur, an outdoor insecticide, as an indoor bed bug treatment. But the compound is currently listed as a probable carcinogen and has been shown to cause birth defects and cognitive disabilities in rats, as well as nausea, dizziness and blurred vision in children. The EPA rejected Ohio’s bid.

That hasn’t stopped homeowners and unlicensed exterminators from running afoul of the EPA’s guidelines. The AP reports that exterminators have used toxicants meant for golf courses rather than cribs inside homes, sickening residents. Not only can these agents, often including a particularly harmful neurotoxicant called chlorpyrifos, cause certain types of cancer, but they are also associated with neurological and hormonal disorders in fetuses.

Many such pesticides are also highly flammable and authorities say improper use has caused a surge in house fires around the country.

As University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum argued in an op-ed earlier this month in the New York Times, bed bugs are relatively harmless, in that they do not spread viruses or pathogens as do other human-feasting insects: lice (Typhus), ticks (Lyme disease), fleas (Bubonic plague), mosquitoes (malaria, dengue fever, West Nile). So while bed bug bites might itch, frighten and occasionally become infected, some recently popularized cures may be worse than the disease.