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People Sickened Getting Rid of Bed Bugs

Air Date: Week of

Bed bug reality in New York (Photo: Geoff Calvert)

Bed bug cases continue to climb. The parasites aren't a health threat, but they drive people to distraction. A new CDC report says some people desperate for a good night’s sleep are overusing insecticides to get rid of bed bugs and getting sick. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports. Bed bug reality in New York (Photo: Geoff Calvert)


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth - I'm Bruce Gellerman. Good night, sleep tight - but unfortunately, sometimes the bedbugs do bite. And while they don’t transmit disease, the creepy crawlers can leave you creeped out and wide awake with a bunch of bite marks on your body.

Bed bugs discovered by a couple on their mattress. Mattress covers deter bed bugs. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons; cuttlefish)

As Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports, some people are so desperate to get rid of the little bloodsuckers, they’re making themselves sick.

LOBET: It's a huge amount of work, and can cost a lot of money to get rid of bedbugs. It involves laundering everything that can be washed in hot water, and sometimes getting rid of mattresses and furniture. People may go through this ordeal when they're short of sleep, if the bugs are keeping them awake at night.

It's a recipe for desperation, and Geoffrey Calvert, a senior medical officer at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati, says that desperation is beginning to show up in cases of insecticide poisoning.

CALVERT: Some people were using sprays - spraying their beds or using these total release foggers in their bedrooms, and climbing into bed without, you know, taking the bedding off, and washing it.

LOBET: Calvert found 111 cases over an 8-year period in which people were poisoned while trying to get rid of bedbugs. Most had headaches, nausea, flu symptoms. One woman died. His findings are published in the Centers for Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Dr. Geoffrey Calvert of NIOSH/CDC co-authored a study on bed bug related insecticide illnesses.

The numbers are small, but represent data from only 7 states, and only cases where someone went to a doctor or called poison control, so they probably reflect only a slice of the actual illnesses.

CALVERT: Bedbug populations in our country are increasing, we’re hearing about more and more infestations, and we've noticed that with each year, the number of cases are increasing. And we’ve identified the most number of cases in 2010. So it's becoming more and more of a problem.

LOBET: Most of the illnesses came from exposure to pyrethroids, a class of chemicals regarded as relatively benign for humans when used as directed. There are ways to get rid of bedbugs besides insecticides, and one reason to use alternatives is that the bugs are becoming resistant to the chemicals. Alternatives include forced steam, hot water washing, vacuuming, spreading diatomaceous earth, even heating whole houses up to 130 degrees, but the truth is:

Bed bug public information campaign in NYC (Photo: Geoff Calvert)

CALVERT: Eradicating bedbugs is very difficult.

LOBET: Bottom line, if you're going to go the chemical route, Geoffrey Calvert says, read the labels carefully, don’t use more than one fogger per room, or, if you can, hire a professional exterminator. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.



Survey of Pest Control Operators 2011

EPA Second National Bedbug Summit February 2011


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